Mental Illness in Jails: Part 3

County Jails and State Prisons are filled to capacity and compared to the general population, a disproportionate number of the inmates have a mental illness. As Houston Public Radio's Paul Pendergraft reports in part three of this series, many of the crimes that led to the confinement were borne from an untreated mental illness. According to one local voice, the concept of prevention seems to be lost on the system.

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Betsy Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston and she says it's common for someone with a mental illness to get their very first treatment for their disease only after being arrested and put behind bars.

"It's not only is jail the last opportunity for someone to get treatment, but in many cases, it's the first and only opportunity because the community mental health system is virtually non-existent for the majority of Houstonians who have serious mental illnesses, and don't have the money or insurance to access private care."

Schwartz says about 29,000 people in Harris County are treated every year in a public mental health center....but she says there are 130,000 people who need mental health care. Schwartz says that means 100,000 people with mental illnesses go untreated in Harris County and the need for help is outpacing the system's ability to serve.

"The community mental health center, MHMRA of Harris County just did a quick analysis of their general revenue funding over the last ten years and what the data shows is that after you account for the rate of inflation over the last ten years and the increase in population, they're actually receiving almost half the dollars they were receiving ten years ago. So what that translates into is that while they may be able to serve the same number of people that they were able to ten years ago, people that are getting service are getting a fraction of the service that they would have gotten ten years ago."

Schwartz says one of the many tragedies in this story is the loss of human potential.

"And the fact that people who could be a productive tax paying member of society, that would have meaningful productive lives end up having to cycle back and forth through jail and often times through emergency rooms and through being homeless. As a taxpayer, all of should be outraged that our tax dollars are being wasted because the same money that could be providing someone with a way to get a meaningful life for themselves and pay taxes instead of being a drain on tax dollars."

Schwartz says like with every other health issue, you pay for way or the other....and with mental health, Schwartz says it's currently being funded in the most expensive and least effective way. Prevention, Schwartz says, is much less expensive and the preferable option, but when it comes to mental illness, the public health system doesn't operate that way. She says a solution can be found with more state funding and tomorrow at this time, we'll hear from a State Legislator who is on the front lines of this effort.

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