Mental illness

It's easier to put mentally ill people in prison than in hospital (image with permission from M. Baczkowska)

If someone you care about has a mental illness, take note: in Canada, there’s a high risk of mentally ill people ending up in prison—and becoming more ill as a result.

Federal figures from 2009 show that the proportion of inmates with mental illness had more than doubled in a decade to 29% of women, 13% of men, and 14% of Aboriginal prisoners. A 2008 statistical review showed that 30.1% of women compared with 14.5% of men had previously been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons.

That’s because when symptoms bring the mentally ill to police attention, it’s a lot easier to get them into prison than into hospital. But in prison, disruptive behaviours are not treated; they are punished—and with security measures that make them worse.

Canadians have seen what that did to 19-year-old Ashley Smith, jailed at the age of 13 for throwing apples at a mailman. Her unruliness was repeatedly punished by more time in prison under the very conditions that triggered her symptoms in the first place.  She finally committed suicide in solitary confinement in a federal prison—while she was under security observation.

And if Ashley just threw apples, some have committed more violent acts; if they too remain untreated, others in our communities may not be safe.

Smart Justice means insisting that mentally ill people receive proper care, for their own health, and to protect the community.

But where? As Dr. John Bradford testified at the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in February 2012, a correctional facility is the worst possible setting for any person with a serious mental illness.

This crisis is upon us because Canada’s treatment of the mentally ill has taken a major step backwards from previous advances. Hospitals have replaced prisons before in our history, but when they were closed in order to treat people more humanely in the community, cost savings took priority and neglect set in. Inadequate medical supervison and social supports led to abandoned treatment, symptom flare-up, vagrancy, homelessness, minor charges, and prison as default housing. It is expected that this situation is now about to get worse, as appropriate health care becomes less accessible, new laws are enacted, and more prisons are built.

Smart Justice for the mentally ill means pushing governments and communities to revitalize the community mental health sector in our country. We must stop Canada’s return to the inhumane and archaic practice of warehousing people with mental illness in prisons.

Ed McIsaac, Susan Dolan, Lorraine Berzins