RESEARCH: Mental Illness Behind Bars – and Under the Rug


(June 27, 2013)  We all know the criminal justice system is bursting with individuals who have severe mental illness.

prisonWe didn’t know the role of their mental illness was being minimized.

According to a new report in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, researchers have begun de-emphasizing the link between mental illness and the risk for criminal behavior in favor of factors such as antisocial attitudes and a lack of problem-solving and self-control skills. 

While such characteristics “may be present and contribute to criminal behavior,” it is the lack of “adequate treatment, structure, social control, and, when necessary, 24-hour care in the mental health system” that results in the behaviors that typically land individuals with severe mental illness behind bars (“Some perspectives on criminalization ,” 2013).

Authors H. Richard Lamb and Linda E. Weinberger estimate that slightly fewer than 378,000 people with serious mental illness are in jails and state and federal prisons. The growing “underemphasis” of the role lack of treatment plays in their incarceration diverts attention and resources from getting them the care they need to avoid criminal behavior and thus “greatly impedes” the efforts to reverse criminalization.

“The importance of psychiatric treatment must not be underestimated,” they warn. The mental health system “needs to be given more funding and to take more responsibility for these challenging individuals.”

The authors conclude with a question: “Is that not our mission: to help those persons with mental illness, especially those who are at most need, in a humane, therapeutic, and dignified manner?”

With their actions, too many mental health systems say, “No.” There’s little chance of that changing to “Yes!” if the link between illness and criminal behavior is swept under the rug.

(Dr. Lamb is a member of the Treatment Advocacy Center board of directors.)

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