How the Mentally Ill Are Treated

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Since there isn’t enough to be horrified about these days, read this St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation into the abuses taking place in Missouri’s mental institutions. Thousands of “mentally retarded and mentally ill people… have been sexually assaulted, beaten, injured and left to die by abusive and neglectful caregivers.” The public tends not to find out about this stuff thanks to “secrecy laws, shoddy investigations and ambivalent police and prosecutors.” Every year, meanwhile, state officials promise to “do better.” Here’s what doing better entails:

In 2002, a privately run home in Bolivar let a man’s bed sores rot his flesh so badly that he died. Two years earlier, state workers repeatedly and severely beat mentally retarded boys in Marshall…

One mentally retarded man [in a facility near Overland] prone to swallowing things died in November after swallowing an ink pen. The resident, Michael Pallme, was supposed to be watched constantly.

Another patient, Rudy Wallace, died in March from burns so severe his skin began falling off after a worker left him in scalding water.

But those incidents are only a fraction of what has occurred inside the state and private facilities that house more than 11,000 state residents who have the most severe cases of mental retardation, developmental disabilities and mental illness.

Now in a country where pundits will applaud one presidential candidate for flying back to Arkansas to execute a functionally-retarded criminal and where another president orders the torture of a mentally-disturbed prisoner so as not to “lose face”, maybe this won’t come as a surprise, but it should still be intolerable.

Some very cursory searching on Google and Nexis didn’t bring up any similar stories about mental institutions in other states, but I’m probably looking in the wrong place. The largest “institutions” in the country nowadays are prisons, which house some 300,000 people with mental disorders, and tend to have poor mental-health services and plenty of abuse to go around. In 2003, Human Rights Watch did a report on prisoners with mental illnesses:

In the most extreme cases, conditions are truly horrific: mentally ill prisoners locked in segregation with no treatment at all; confined in filthy and beastly hot cells; left for days covered in feces they have smeared over their bodies; taunted, abused, or ignored by prison staff; given so little water during summer heat waves that they drink from their toilet bowls…. Suicidal prisoners are left naked and unattended for days on end in barren, cold observation cells. Poorly trained correctional officers have accidentally asphyxiated mentally ill prisoners whom they were trying to restrain.

It doesn’t even take “the most extreme cases” to see things are bad. From people who have worked closely on this issue, I’ve heard plenty of stories of, say, prisoners who simply won’t be “officially” classified as mentally ill despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, and will then get written up by guards at the first outburst of strange behavior (say, compulsive masturbating in their cell), leading to a longer prison sentence. Is this likely to make things a) better or b) worse? Yeah, I wonder too.

A summary of the HRW report is here. Among other things, HRW notes that until this country gets serious about the community mental health systems that were supposed to replace mental hospitals after “deinstitutionalization” in the 1960s, prisons will continue to serve as mental institutions of last resort. I’d like to know what effects the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, passed by Congress in 2004, has had but perhaps it’s too early to tell. It also appears that the “war on drugs,” the gift that keeps on giving, has disproportionately affected the mentally ill as the prison population continues to expand and expand without end.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate