Terry McAteer: Mental health issues abound in our county jail | TheUnion.com
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Terry McAteer: Mental health issues abound in our county jail

Terry McAteer
Columnist

As this pandemic has shown us, our own personal mental health is just as important as our physical health.

Being cooped up for days on end can drive anyone a little crazy. In fact, suicide rates and the need for more therapeutic treatments have increased, according to the Kaiser Health Foundation. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline are up over 1,000%.

Our local Wayne Brown Correctional Facility in Nevada City houses a couple of hundred men and women regularly on a daily basis; this type of confinement, in general, promotes some mental health issues, and has, long before the pandemic struck.

On a recent tour of the facility, prior to the pandemic, I was amazed to learn of the growing rate of mental health cases within the facility. According to the jailers, it is the most distressing and growing dynamic in the county jail. A study by California Health Strategies shows that Nevada County is not alone with the rise of mental health cases. The study shows a 42% increase over the past decade in inmates being diagnosed with mental health issues.

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It is way past the time for the state to get back in the business of housing our seriously ill members of society.

Our jailer giving the tour, along with a medical practitioner at Wayne Brown, estimates two-thirds of the inmates are on some form of daily psychotropic drug in order to deal with their mental health conditions. This is in keeping with the findings of the study which also noted that both Kern and Santa Clara County Jails have over 80% of their inmates being medicated. According to the study “the findings reflect a trend towards increased incarceration of seriously mentally ill individuals.”

“We’re cycling people from the street in and out of jail, and they’re not getting better,” says David Parush, Founder of California Health Strategies, which did the study. Our jailer at Wayne Brown echoed these sentiments, in that most of the incarcerated are in a revolving door: from homelessness, to incarceration, back to homelessness.

The study also highlighted four trends in mental health and incarceration: first, that individuals experiencing mental illness are likely to remain incarcerated longer than their peers; secondly, that inmates with mental health issues are more likely to be disciplined and isolated in segregated housing; thirdly, inmates with a mental health diagnosis are more likely to commit suicide which is the leading cause of death in correctional facilities; and finally, it is very expensive to incarcerate individuals with mental illness since jails and correctional workers are improperly equipped for providing treatment.

Certainly, the realignment of our state prisons and county jails under AB 109 has caused a drastic change in the severity of individuals being served in our local jails. This, coupled with the growing trend of increased mental health cases, is putting new burdens on our local law enforcement officials.

It doesn’t take much brain power to understand that many of the people being served in our county jails should be housed in mental health hospitals. It would be cheaper and better therapy to have these people institutionalized in caring facilities other than jails that are not in the therapy and compassion business.

It is way past the time for the state to get back in the business of housing our seriously ill members of society. This is something that all First World nations do, which is to house its seriously mentally ill members of society.

The idea of institutionalizing people who are unable to care for themselves is not an overreach of government, but a society which shows compassion for its mentally ill.

Terry McAteer is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at editboard@theunion.com.


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