Saturday, November 17, 2007

A sick system: Reform Florida's treatment of mental illness

State prisons and county jails throughout Florida are filled with people who suffer from mental illnesses.

That says as much about the condition of our society as it does the inmates.

"On any given day in Florida, there are approximately 16,000 prison inmates, 15,000 local jail detainees and 40,000 individuals under correctional supervision in the community who experience serious mental illness," according to a state report issued Wednesday.

Those troubling statistics were compiled in a report by a legislative Mental Health Subcommittee that recommends substantial changes in the treatment of mentally ill Floridians, especially those accused of crimes. Indeed, radical reform is needed.

The Florida Supreme Court called for the report. As a result, the subcommittee produced a 180-page document that exposes ineffective and outdated systems, treatments and practices.

"The first state psychiatric hospitals were opened in the United States during the 1800s, and were intended to serve as more appropriate and compassionate alternatives to the neglect and abuse of incarceration" that befell the mentally ill, according to the report's executive summary.

Asylums became crowded, lacked staff and "turned into houses of horrors."

By the mid-1900s, a half-million people were held in such places. A belief emerged "that people with serious mental illnesses could be treated more effectively and humanely in the community."

There was some logic in that belief. But mental hospitals released thousands of people and "unfortunately," the subcommittee report says, "there was no organized or adequate network of community mental health centers to receive and absorb these newly displaced individuals."

Promises of sustained increases in community-based funding evaporated. With limited options available, mentally ill men, women and juveniles struggle to cope. Inappropriate behavior, homelessness, substance abuse and minor crimes often lead to arrest and incarceration. Now, the report says, "jails and prisons once again function as de facto mental health institutions for people with severe and disabling mental illnesses. In two centuries, we have come full circle, and today our jails are once again psychiatric warehouses."

The report calls for Florida to develop a system that effectively and humanely treats mentally ill people for their illnesses and prevents them from getting stuck in costly, dangerous jails. Taking these steps won't be easy or inexpensive but they are the right steps to take

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