Mentally ill inmates overload system

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: March 11 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:25 am in

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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The increasing number of seriously mentally ill inmates in our state prison system isn’t news. It’s been a reported concern for years. Well, guess what: Many county jails are dealing with much the same problem.

It’s yet another sign that Iowa’s mental health care system isn’t equipped to handle what’s happening. Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill from state mental health facilities began in the late 1950s. Community-based mental health centers were supposed to take their place. But the system hasn’t covered the need and that gap has contributed to more and more mentally ill being sent to jails and state prisons — they are the No. 1 care provider in Iowa.

A Gazette report last week noted that an average of three-fourths of the Linn County Jail population is on psychiatric medication. At Johnson County, about 16 percent of all inmates booked last year self-reported being on such medication. Undoubtedly there are others who need treatment.

Meanwhile, even as the state prisoner population has dropped in recent years, the percentage of those who are seriously mentally ill has climbed to more than 30 percent — what’s worse, about 75 percent of those prisoners also abuse drugs or alcohol, further complicating treatment challenges.

Linn and Johnson sheriffs say their staffs work to make sure inmates get the medication they need and try to connect them with other types of treatment services. But too often, Iowa’s mental health care resources are inadequate. They don’t provide a continuum of services to help ensure that inmates can function successfully in society once they’re released from jail.

Most important: People with mental health problems need better access to services before they become at risk of committing crimes.

Iowa is transforming its mental health care system into a regional rather than county-based approach. It should bring a more consistent level of services statewide. But it’s increasingly clear that the resources — enough funding and providers — will be the biggest hurdles to address.

Comments: editorial@thegazette.com

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