As a psychiatric social worker in a busy urban clinic, I work with patients often just discharged from long prison stays. I have seen firsthand how incarceration only exacerbates mental health problems. Many of the individuals I see suffer from what is called a co-occurring disorder. That is, they suffer from both psychiatric and addictive illness.
I also experience this struggle at a very personal level. I am the mother of an adult son who suffers from addictive illness and who has been incarcerated multiple times mostly for minor violations (not showing up for a probation hearing). My son suffers from a co-occurring disorder and, like many people in jail and prison, has never harmed anyone. Both his mental challenges and his addiction compromise his ability to problem-solve, plan for the future and to have a high tolerance for frustration.
Incarceration has only exacerbated his mental problems. He’s received no vocational training, no comprehensive psychiatric treatment (including medication management and psychotherapy) and no help with the huge challenges of re-entering a world with no housing, no food, no financial support and no employment. We have fought the fight so long that we’re exhausted emotionally, physically and financially. But his co-occurring disorder remains.
As a society, we have tried and failed to arrest our way out of these social and health issues. That approach is inadequate, unjust and expensive. And what do we have to show for it? About one in four individuals in state prison suffers from mental illness. Nearly four out of five who could benefit from substance abuse treatment do not receive it.