Imminent Danger: The Problem with Mental Illness and the Justice System

UnknownIf you have heard of the Aurora Colorado shooting from July 2012 or the Newtown Conneticut Shooting from December 2012 or the Navy Yard shooting from September 2013 or have heard all the chatter about gun control then you need to see this video. It talks about mental health as it relates to our country’s system.

What I love about the way the video starts out is that it says that there is a kernel of truth to people’s lives and the way they live it. It goes back to the saying “perception is reality.” I’ve mentioned this before in other blogs and it’s still true here. It doesn’t matter whether you have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, a relatively simple case of stress, or good old fear. We make decisions in our life that are  based on our experience and perceptions of what is happening. It’s how we see things, feel things, experience things. You and I can both go through the same event, but come out with radically different outcomes because we’ve perceived it differently. For some people, their perception is distorted. However, it is still their reality that they have to deal with.

We’re taught this as trainees that you have to find the kernel of truth for everyone’s experience. The best thing to do is to find out what that truth is and how we can best use that to work towards their goals. This can be applied not just to a clinician’s life, but to anyone’s life. How often do we get so lost in our own perceptions that we forget that the other is coming from their own point of view. It’s not always an easy thing to do to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, especially when you think they’re not putting themselves in your shoes, but I challenge you to try to do it for them for a test run. Instead of going on the defense, ask the right questions and figure out why it is the person perceives the argument or event the way they do. From there, you can hopefully use that as a jump start to express your own point of view and see how your logic got misconstrued in their head or visa versa and how you can get on the same page again. Go in with the intention of simply understanding them – not necessarily agreeing, but understanding. Start with that and see where that leads.

Back to the video though…The other thing about this video that I’m glad it mentions is that the largest mental health facility in the U.S. is the Cook County Jail. I’ve heard it was actually Los Angeles’ Twin Towers; however, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that we’ve ended up treating mental illness via incarceration. We live in a system that won’t treat your child, your parent, your aunt/uncle, your friend because they’re not an immediate danger to themselves or another person – yet they are in desperate need for help. If you try calling the cops, they most likely won’t help because they’re not about to pull the trigger. And unfortunately, if they were, there wouldn’t be enough time.

Pete Earley, who wrote a book called Crazy, talked about his experience with the system in Miami where people were being shuffled back and forth between mental health “treatment facilities” and prison because of a lack of space in either location. He states that operational rooms make more money for insurance companies than psychiatric wards, so we have a system that does not have the resources to get people the treatment that they need. There’s even a name for the floor in the Miami jail where the mentally ill were housed: Forgotten Floor. Many inmates don’t have access to basic things such as sheets because of the potential harm they could do to themselves. Just try googling the “forgotten floor” and see what comes up.

I’m not asking you to go talk to your congress person about the mental health system and ways to reform it. I’m not asking you to write a letter. I’m not asking you to do anything, but your mere reading of this post and hopefully watching of the video informs you a little bit better of what is actually going on and the more people who know, the better we end up being because knowledge is power and eventually the system will change as the knowledge grows. If you feel so inclined to take a strong political stance towards changing the mental health system, then I applaud you, but at the very least, I’m hoping you leave this article with a greater sense of compassion and understanding for the state of our union and your own union.

Share your thoughts: What did you think? Don’t you see how important this topic of mental illness really is in our country?

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Rubin Khoddam, PhD Clinical Psychology student at University of Southern California, founder of Psych Connection.

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Categories: Blogs by Rubin, Videos

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7 replies


  1. A follow-up conversation on mental health and the criminal justice system | Psych Connection
  2. Reducing mental health stigma – How different are we all? | Psych Connection
  3. Why mental illness is not a one-lane highway | Psych Connection
  4. The Disease Model of Mental Illness and Addiction + New Healthcare Coverage | Psych Connection
  5. Treatment of mental illness lowers arrest rates and saves money | Psych Connection
  6. Why psychology is wrong in the way they think about mental illness… « Psych Connection
  7. Let’s re-language the way we talk about mental illness « Psych Connection

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