“Mental health problems can look like a lot of other things” – especially alcohol, substance abuse, or general misbehaviors.
“It’s hard to get help even when you ask” – there is a great need for more education and resources to address mental health of kids and teens. Even if they get to courage to ask for assistance, trusted adults may not be able to help.
“Having mental health issues is not against the law but it can get you in a lot of trouble” – in many cases behavior related to mental health issues can lead to young people getting in trouble at school or with the law.
We need to do more upstream, especially when it comes to youthful intervention. But that requires significant financial resources. As Commissioner Roy said: “We need resources upstream but we have to paddle hard and we need an expensive canoe.”
Not all criminal offenders and criminal offenses are because of mental illness. And vice versa, not all people with mental illness commit criminal acts.
It costs less to treat mental illness than it does to imprison someone. Commissioner Roy estimates there is a $6 payback for every dollar invested in prevention and health, and the true societal savings are in reducing future crime and victimization.
There is already ample evidence about what works: access to treatment, stable housing and employment opportunities. Abderholden said the last thing we need is another study of this problem, and added we should stop suspending young students in kindergarten through third grade.
The main issue is about money and stigma and who will spend the money it takes to shoulder mental illness. Dr. Colón said: if we don’t invest in health and social services, then we will pay for mental health problems through the correctional system.
There was widespread agreement about the need to break down stigma and shatter negative images of mental illness. Abderholden said the best way to break the stigma of mental illness is to share personal experiences and change our language to get rid of harmful stereotypes.
The panelists also discussed the importance of helping people coming out of the criminal justice system by providing the resources they need to stabilize and heal – including stable housing, employment or simply uninterrupted access to medications. Dr. Colón added: “there is nothing more tragic than a patient saying they were better off in jail.”
Much more can be done to improve proactive responses to mental health issues. Increasing Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) is one area where Minnesota is leading the U.S., Roy added, but more training is needed to help de-escalate situations. Bringing more accountability to practices like solitary confinement, enforcing mental health parity laws, bolstering Minnesota’s mental health and schools program, and providing mobile mental health crisis teams are several of the steps that NAMI-MN’s Sue Abderholden emphasized. Dr. Colón re-stated his call for mental health professionals to screen every person who enters a jail or prison, and for increased resources throughout the system.