As Mental Health Services Have Disappeared, The Prison Population Has Skyrocketed

The Great Recession led to the biggest cuts to mental health services in this nation’s history. According to a report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, states slashed more than $1.8 billion from their mental health services between 2009 and 2011. That funding decision has had some serious consequences — such as fewer beds in mental health institutions for American adults, creating a situation in which mentally ill people often end up in prison when they can’t access the treatment they need.

But this trend wasn’t initiated by the recession’s budget cuts; it was simply worsened by it. As evidenced by the following graph from Mother Jones (which relies on the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ data), it’s been happening over the past several decades. Since the 1970s, a rapid rise in the nation’s prison population has directly corresponded with a sharp decline in the number of Americans institutionalized at mental health hospitals:

Patients are often pushed into the prison system when they don’t have access to the mental health treatment that helps keep them stable. Without the medication, counseling, and support they need, mentally ill Americans can exhibit behavior that results in an encounter with law enforcement. But another part of the issue is that American society continues to criminalize mental illness rather than recognizing and treating it effectively.

This issue doesn’t just affect adults. A recent survey of Texas’ juvenile detention facilities found that the rate of mental illness exceeds the rate of gang membership among teen prisoners there.