You shouldn’t have to go to jail for mental health treatment

Last week I tweeted a link to a Texas Observer article by Emily DePrang about sexual assaults in Harris County jails. DePrang had written about two Bureau of Justice Statistics studies that showed the Harris County Jail on Baker Street had sexual assaults that are higher than national averages.

One survey reported rates of sexual victimization as reported by inmates, and found that inmates reported higher than average rates of victimization from other inmates. The other survey was based on official reports of sexual violence in jails and also reported higher than average rates for the Baker Street jail. DePrang did not discuss, in her short post, all the statistical and methodological limitations of the studies in question.

To my surprise, Alan Bernstein, the director for public affairs at the sheriff’s office tweeted me, saying he hoped someone would fact-check DePrang’s article as it had many mistakes, so I asked him what the mistakes were, and he sent me a list of items he felt were misleading. Later, the Texas Observer agreed to publish his response to the article (his published response was slightly different from what he sent me).

For the most part, his response pointed out the limitations of the study. Also, he noted that only one of four jails in Harris County had a higher incidence of sexual assault, and he also noted that jail had a high percentage of inmates who are under treatment for mental illness. In his note to me, Bernstein asked, “Is touching a clothed inmate’s thigh sexual violence? Maybe so. But this is one of the actions considered sexual victimization in the study.” I will just say that I consider any unwanted touching of my upper thigh over or under clothing to be sexual assault, even if the “violence” seems minor.

In trying to separate the signal from noise, though, what interested me most was not the definition of sexual violence or even the limitations of the study but the fact that the jail had so many inmates on medications. The Houston Chronicle quoted Sheriff Adrian Garcia saying, “The Harris County Jail has been referred to as the largest psychiatric facility in the state of Texas” and “More than 2,000 inmates … are on psychotropic medications on a daily basis.” And in Bernstein’s response, posted on the Texas Observer site, he said:

That building houses the jail system’s inmates with acute mental illness. In fact the statistician who worked on the 2011 study tells us that two-thirds of the surveyed inmates in the so-called “high” rate building had “psychological stress disorders.” We don’t know how that was determined, and we would never allege that people with mental illness fabricate allegations more often than anyone else.

I’m not sure what “acute” means in this context, but I suspect anyone on medication is assumed to have an acute mental illness. Given the number of prescriptions written for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications these days, I suspect a fairly high percentage of the general population is acutely mentally ill, according to these assumptions. Even someone being treated for mild depression, though, will experience unpleasant side-effects if doses are missed, as they are likely to be missed inside a jail. We should be concerned both about lack of treatment for mental health and the over-prescription of  drugs for depression and anxiety. Withdrawal sometimes leads to aggressive behavior and could account for some problems. On the other hand, mental illness is also stigmatized, and those receiving treatment may become targets for abuse at the hands of other inmates.

Fortunately, I found more information on treatment of the mentally ill in Harris Country jails in excellent article by DePrang titled “Barred Care.” According to the article, the jail “treats more psychiatric patients than all 10 of Texas’ state-run public mental hospitals combined.” And why is that? Because no one else is treating those patients. Again from the article: “Harris County has one of the most underfunded public mental health systems in a state that consistently ranks last, or almost last, in per capita mental health spending.” Some people get so desperate for relief, that they break the law just so they can go to jail and get treatment.

The program in the jail is commendable. The funding priorities of our state government are not. In 2003, the Texas legislature slashed funding for mental health services in Texas. According to DePrang’s article, “In Harris County, the number of law enforcement calls about people in psychiatric crisis jumped from fewer than 11,000 in 2003 to more than 27,000 in 2012.” So, the Harris County jail has a high number of mentally ill as a result of deliberate action of our state’s lawmakers. This should make us all angry. Cutting funding for mental health services only to force the mentally ill into jails is cruel and expensive. No matter what sends people to jail, many will never really recover from the stigma and the trauma of the experience.

What should be done? We should lobby our lawmakers to restore funding for mental health services in Texas. We should stop blaming the mentally ill for their problems. We should resist the temptation to treat even minor difficulties with powerful and addicting drugs. We should insist that Texas expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act (this would cost the state nothing) so that people can receive basic medical care and avoid crisis.

In short, we should learn to heal each other. The person with a mental health crisis tomorrow could be you.

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