By: Ellen Albritton
Across the country, states are experiencing severe budget crises. Deciding which programs and services will get cut in order to balance the budget is often a battle dramatically played out in the media. Less common is media coverage following the cuts to social services, so we often fail to hear the stories of those individuals whose daily lives are deeply affected by the policy decisions that our lawmakers debate so heatedly. This story in the New York Times sheds light on the current experiences of people with mental illness in Texas, as well as what may happen to these vulnerable individuals if proposed cuts to mental health are passed. These proposed cuts in Texas could lead to a 20% cut in funding to community mental health centers. However, these facilities are already falling fall short of being able to provide for everyone in the community suffering from mental illness.
For many people in the United States dealing with mental illness, their best chance at receiving medication and treatment for their illness is within the walls of a prison. As the article states, “the jail is the largest mental health institution in the state.” What does the incarceration rate of people with mental illness tell us about the way we view the mentally ill regarding community? Why do we still view mental illness with so much stigma? What is preventing us from extending our notion of community to include these vulnerable members of our society?
There is a full spectrum of crimes for which people who are mentally are incarcerated. These range from violations of minor local ordinances to very violent crimes. How much can we hold these individuals personally responsible for their actions, especially when there continue to be fewer and fewer treatment and support options available to them? What about their right to self-determination? Those suffering from severe mental disorders may pose a threat to themselves or to others. Do we have the right to disregard their self-determination and forcibly medicate or forcibly admit them to a mental health institution? Finally, does the stigma surrounding mental illness lead to more allowances for overriding self-determination than is reasonably necessary for public safety?