Press Releases

NAMI Applauds NBC News Program "Back to Bedlam" For Exposing Failure of Mental Healthcare System

Criminalization Receives National Attention

Mar 12 1999

Arlington, VA - NAMI applauds tonight's Geraldo Rivera NBC News special "Back To Bedlam" (9:00 p.m., ET) for exposing our nation's failed mental healthcare policies that result in the incarceration rather than the treatment of hundreds of thousands of people with mental illness. NAMI hopes that heightened exposure will bring about change in the broken healthcare and correctional systems that have long been assailed by NAMI.

"This problem requires in-depth media coverage and exposure," said Laurie Flynn, executive director of NAMI. "We're not talking about a few isolated cases, we're talking about hundreds of thousands. It's easier for a person with mental illness to get arrested in this country than to get treatment."

As early as 1992, NAMI published a report, "Criminalizing the Seriously Mentally Ill: The Abuse of Jails as Mental Hospitals," that documented the disturbing trend of incarcerating individuals with serious brain disorders, usually for minor offenses. The report also presented extensive evidence of abusive conditions to which these ill individuals were subjected.

When deinstitutionalization occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, large state psychiatric hospitals were supposed to be replaced by community-based treatment programs. Instead, countless numbers of people with mental illness have been left on their own without treatment or medical attention. Many have come to the attention of local law enforcement agencies, and jails and prisons increasingly have become a virtual dumping ground for people with mental illness.

"If anything, the NBC program shows how this situation has only further deteriorated. For persons with mental illness, today's system represents a reign of terror and error," Flynn declared. "As a society, we can do better."

NAMI is pursuing the following strategies for reducing the criminalization of people with severe mental illnesses:

  • Establishing assertive community treatment programs to address the needs of people with the most severe mental illnesses.
  • Creating authority in state criminal codes for judges to divert non-violent offenders with severe mental illnesses away from incarceration and into appropriate treatment.
  • Enacting laws that afford humane treatment to those individuals whose psychiatric symptoms prevent them from recognizing their need for treatment.
  • Establishing specialty "mental health courts" to hear all cases involving individuals with severe mental illnesses charged with misdemeanors or non-violent felonies with the purpose of diverting as many of these cases as possible away from criminal incarceration, and into appropriate mental health treatment and services.
  • Training police officers who come into contact with people with severe mental illnesses in the community to recognize the signs and symptoms of these illnesses and to respond effectively and appropriately to people who are experiencing psychiatric crises.
  • Designating trained professionals (police officers or mental health crisis workers) to be available on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis to respond to people with severe mental illnesses experiencing crises in the community.
  • Training probate, civil, and criminal court judges and personnel about severe mental illnesses and legal issues affecting people with these illnesses.
  • Creating specialized divisions or units within departments of parole and probation with specific responsibility for coordinating and administering services for people with severe mental illnesses who are on probation.
  • Providing specialized training to parole officers about severe mental illnesses, the needs of people with these illnesses on probation, and treatment resources and benefits available to these individuals.