Giving Patients Better Mental Health Care Reduces The Prison Population And Saves Us Money

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Giving psychiatric patients more comprehensive mental health treatment — including medication and continued counseling — after they’re released from the hospital could be an effective way to lower the prison population, according to a new study. That approach also ends up saving the government money on health care and jails.

Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of South Florida found that psychiatric patients who has access to affordable outpatient mental health treatment and medication were far less likely to end up in prison than those who didn’t. And that’s actually a more cost-effective approach. The patients in the study who received consistent treatment cost the government $68,000 in health care spending over seven years, as opposed to the $95,000 that the government had to spend on emergency psychiatric care and criminal justice services for the patients who didn’t get continuous treatment.

“We often say we need to put public safety first and the notion of helping the individual second; what we found was that when we provide treatment, we actually achieve both those goals,” said Sarah L. Desmarais, assistant professor of psychology at N.C. State University, in an interview with News Observer.

There is wide-ranging evidence that America’s broken mental health system is a significant contributor to the prison population. Most Americans struggle to access mental health treatment, usually because they lack the proper resources, can’t afford it, or forgo care because of the stigma associated with it.

In large cities across states like California and Illinois, that’s led to a situation where jails often become de facto asylums, since many of the severely mentally ill — particularly the homeless — can’t get regular treatment. One report found that 911 calls involving mentally-ill Americans have increased on average by 37.5 percent over the last four years in major U.S. cities. Many of those patients end up getting in trouble repeatedly after receiving emergency care in a mental health center, at which point many have to rely on the prison system for treatment — something that correctional officers say is not ideal.

“This is something that happens all the time here and the heart of it is, we’re not a mental health facility. These people should not be here,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in an interview with CBS News. “These people by and large are not criminals. They’re people with mental illness but when they act out they end up in the jails because it’s the only place that’ll take them.”

Despite the evidence that greater mental health and prescription drug coverage can reverse this trend, funding for mental resources has dried up in recent years, with states slashing over $1.8 billion in funding for services between 2009 and 2011. GOP-led states refusing to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will also be denying 1.2 million poor and mentally ill Americans from getting basic mental services.