When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”
I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the U.S. is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise — in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.
With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill — Rikers Island, the L.A. County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.
No one wants to send a 13-year-old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast-food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”
I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nationwide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.
God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.
Liza Long is an author, musician, and erstwhile classicist. She is also a single mother of four bright, loved children, one of whom has special needs.