• Doug Tjapkes

Noisy headlines, and mental illness gets shoved aside again

Black Lives Matter. Presidential debates. COVID 19. All making headlines these days. And once again, mental illness gets placed on the back burner.  Yet, guess what? The problem doesn’t go away! And it won't.  I’ve been hammering on it for years. We have a mental illness crisis in our state prisons, and thousands of people are not only suffering...they’re not being properly treated.  Our in-prison essayist, Ricardo, has long served as a Prisoner Observation Aide, and claims to have personally witnessed over 1,000 mentally ill individuals suffering from acute disorders. He says that 10,000 Michigan prisoners have been diagnosed as being severely mentally ill. That’s a significant chunk of the population total of 35,000. Based on the messages crossing the desks in our office, we think the percentage of prisoners experiencing some mental challenges is considerably higher than that. One of our inmate whistle-blowers places the estimate at 80%!  It’s a huge problem.  For the most part, it’s being handled in the prison system by merely administering psych meds, according to Ricardo. “And in many instances those individuals experiencing episodes where they’re displaying harmful behavior, the approach by staff often takes a more punitive measure.” He claims that many prisoners housed in what is called the Residential Treatment Program are the subject of physical, verbal and emotional abuse by guards.  In another facility, Michael writes: “Living in close quarters with mentally ill individuals doesn’t allow one to adjust, much less learn to adapt to a normal social environment.” He said that the mentally ill sometimes scream throughout the night, making it difficult for all to sleep. So, it’s hell when the non-mentally ill inmates are mixed in with the mental cases.  Not that it’s all that much better on the outside. Things slid downhill in a hurry when we closed our mental institutions in the 70s. Just two years ago, a study showed that more than 650,000 Michigan residents with a mental illness and more than 500,000 with a substance use disorder are not receiving treatment! We’ll eventually get a vaccine for the coronavirus.  But, like the poor, we’ll always have the mentally challenged with us. It’s time that we provided compassionate and responsible treatment to all, especially those behind bars. We're completely aware of the fact that the "squeaky-wheel" headlines demand and will get attention. But behind the scenes, our mentally ill need attention now.  Especially in our prisons! “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”  – Glenn Close

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