Pubdate: Wed, 11 Dec 2002
Source: Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN)
Copyright: 2002 The Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.
Author:  Sheryl McCormick
Bookmark: (Treatment)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


Editor, the News-Sentinel:

Our elected officials must avoid further criminalization of mental illness 
as they consider the jail overcrowding issue. An audit of the Tennessee 
Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities reveals that 
more Tennesseans with psychiatric disorders are in jails or prisons than in 
our mental health institutes.

Knox County is no exception. Attorney General Randy Nichols estimates that 
35 percent of inmates have a mental illness. People need treatment, not 
punishment, for medical conditions that affect their brain and behavior.

The needs of people with mental illness, 50 percent of whom have a 
co-occurring substance abuse disorder, should be addressed as a less 
costly, more humane solution. Overcrowding could be alleviated by diverting 
persons with mental illness into treatment, better serving the individuals 
and our community.

In Knox County, mental health crises may result in persons being arrested 
for having treatable conditions. Persons with heart attacks are not at such 
risk, but woe to those with a brain attack.

Persons jailed need screening for mental illness and substance abuse and 
timely access to treatment. If we prevent recidivism, we relieve 
overcrowding and contribute to the recovery of persons with these 
disorders. Without appropriate treatment, those released are more likely to 
re-offend, cycling in and out of the criminal justice system or committed 
to Lakeshore Mental Health Institute.

The solution includes countywide crisis intervention teams, pre-booking 
diversion for symptomatic misdemeanants, availability of community-based 
treatment - including housing. Mental health courts must assess treatment 
needs, mandating care instead of incarceration when warranted. Any new jail 
facility needs a mental health unit to protect a population that does not 
need a criminal education while in a vulnerable state.

Endorse solutions that safeguard us all. One out of every five citizens - 
75,000 Knox Countians - has a mental illness. It could happen to any of us; 
it has happened to my family.

Sheryl McCormick
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