Going Mental: Minorities and Mental Health in the Criminal Justice System


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Would you accept a mental health care facility in your neighborhood? The ‘Not in My Backyard’ philosophy may be a barrier to appropriate health care for many people. Image by jade

Significant growth of the United States penal system means that a lot of mentally ill prisoners remain in need of proper mental health care.

Since the 1970s, the incarceration rate has significantly increased while the rate of mental hospital occupancy has decreased, resulting in a surge of imprisoned mentally ill persons.

African-Americans make up the majority of those going without treatment in the penal system.

Social Mindsets Serve as Barriers in Obtaining Help

There’s a concern about being labeled ‘crazy’ that serves as a barrier for the mentally ill to get necessary relief from medical professionals. Sue Abdnerholder, Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (Minnesota),  notes that this mindset prevents the mentally ill from returning to their community, as almost every community refused to have any mental health facilities in their neighborhood.

“NIMBY,” an acronym for “Not in My Back Yard,” refers to community opposition to having these facilities. The Department of Justice Bureau of Statistics’ 2006 “Mental Health Problems in Prison and Jail Inmates” survey shows that there were 1.2 million prisoners that were mentally ill. According to the survey, 64% of local jail inmates, 56% state prisoners and 46% federal prisoners had symptoms of serious mental illnesses, with African-Americans being overrepresented.

Mental Illness in Jail: Who Feels it More?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2006 study, 50% of the prison population suffer from some form of mental illness and because of this, each year, the justice system deals with thousands of mentally ill people with social personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

Women proportionally represent a greater percentage of the incarcerated mentally ill, and men report higher rates of antisocial personality disorder. Caucasians are more likely to report a mental illness than blacks and Hispanics, but are more likely to receive diagnoses of schizophrenia and other related illness.

UK vs US Mental Illness

In a Center for Mental Health comparison of minorities with mental illnesses in prison in the United States and the United Kingdom, blacks represent 10% of the mentally ill in the UK prisons while secure mental health forensic hospitals include an over-representation of some black communities. However, like the U.S., the rate of diagnosed mental health problems in prison is lower in the black minority ethnic group than among the white population and this may reflect lower levels of identification and referral.

Getting Psychiatric Help: Is Race the Determining Factor?

Melissa Thompson, Associate Professor of Sociology at Portland State University, explains in Gender, Race and Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System that race was a determinant as to whether or not a person gets a mental health label or possible treatment. Even though there is some form of inconsistency, there is evidence that race plays a role in the diversion of convicted felons into the mental health system instead of prison.

Experts have argued that authorities ignore or treat displays of pathology- by African-Americans in particular- as criminal behavior instead of mental illness. This is possibly due to the stereotype of African-Americans in which the focus is usually on crime and violence.

Because the authorities interpret the African-American behavior as criminal, there is less likelihood that they will receive treatment or have accessibility to treatment in the community or within the criminal justice system. Instead of diagnosis and treatment for the criminal behavior, family and economic factors determine which defendants are eligible for psychiatric treatment in the criminal justice system.

In her study, Thompson found that African-Americans received significantly less mental health treatment than non-African-Americans. Even after controlling for mental health status and self reported mental health, African-Americans are less likely than non-African-Americans to report receiving treatment while on probation or in jail or prison.

Mental Health and the Justice System: Making it Right

The United States needs some form of monitoring system and a greater minority representation with a strategy for the mentally ill minority offenders. The criminal justice system serves as a gateway of sorts for the mentally ill to get into the mental health system, but the United States needs to take comprehensive action to address the issue which is seemingly out of control.

It is quite clear that there is a need to tackle the issue of mental illness amongst minorities. Education, beginning from the elementary level, about mental illness could tell of the importance for treatment; this coupled with efforts from government and mental health agencies and the criminal justice system to better formulate a relationship between the African-American community could address this need.

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