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John Oliver: It’s time we rethink how we treat people with mental illness

Written by Diane Archer

Americans don’t like to talk about mental health or mental illness. And, John Oliver makes the case that it’s time that we start rethinking how we talk about and treat people with mental illness. Oliver posits that our politicians principally focus on mental illness in the context of mass shootings, which is deeply misleading. People with mental illness are more often the victims of mass shootings than the perpetrators.

Oliver calls for a public discussion on mental illness.  In 2013, an estimated 43.8 million adults suffered from mental illness, not including drug or alcohol-related disorders; 18.5 percent of the adult population. And, each year, 10 million Americans suffer from a serious mental illness. Notwithstanding, we have not properly funded community mental health centers.  A few years ago CNN reported that some 125,000 young and middle-aged mental health patients are housed in nursing homes. And, 2 million people with mental illness go to state and local jails each year rather than to state-funded centers for psychiatric treatment.

We shouldn’t use the criminal justice system to treat the mentally ill.  It is expensive, ineffective and dangerous.

For information on Medicare coverage of mental health care, click here.



  • It’s the way our economic system is structured —
    1) There are more slots available, but still not enough for the need, in the older citizen caretaking residential settings. It is supposed that the severely mental ill really won’t notice their fellow residents.
    2) It is cheaper to stick someone in a senior care center, about $5000+/ month, than in a psychiatric residential care setting, around $10,000+/month…
    3) Sometimes in parts of our country, especially in non-metropolitan areas, senior citizen centers are the only ones equipped to deal with dementia behaviors…

  • Mental health services in California used to be much better, at least in some California counties, but have been effectively gutted by the ongoing withdrawal of funding (ongoing and continuing effects of Prop 13, especially by the commercial real estate sector). The national ‘mental health carve-out’ of insurance and public pay which took place decades ago, has guaranteed that there are inadequate mental health services. ‘De-institutionalization’ had noble sentiment, but ‘a bait and switch’ happened and the promised adequate community mental health services were never provided. Recent laws ‘requiring’ mental health services don’t begin to cover the eroded infrastructure of psychiatric services and even the fully trained psychiatrists and the other practitioners needed, both in adult psychiatry and those trained with additional fellowships in child and adolescent psychiatry.
    Early intervention and help are essential, instead of looking the other way. School districts are often reluctant to identify problems in children and adolescents because they’re trying to avoid having to pay for needed services. If they wait until a kid is 18, then they’re on their own and too often on the street, and then too often in jail. Providing comprehensive medical services in all sectors would change the rate of incarceration of the mentally ill, as well providing structured living that’s above ‘board and care’. We as a society will have to decide that we’d rather provide meaningful community housing and medical services for the mentally ill, rather than incarcerating them, which is much more expensive anyway,

  • How ironic that those with mental illnesses end up in jail! A few hardened criminals beat the system by being declared mentally ill (i.e., Dan White in San Francisco, John Hinckley, etc..) and there’s this guy who killed his family and used mental illness as an excuse

    This isn’t fair that those who truly have mental health issues end up jail when they don’t belong there!

    • As a society, we keep choosing to ‘punish’ difficult behavior without looking at the cause and without giving any thought to the possibility of rehabilitation or treatment. We as a society have chosen the more expensive and destructive jail system over most other possibilities, even for juvenile offenders, decreasing the chances that they can become productive members of society.

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