National Issue: Criminalizing Mentally Ill People?!

A multi-exposure of an emotional woman.

( – The problem of criminalizing mentally ill people, therefore making treatment and life for them more difficult, is becoming a serious issue in the United States. Law enforcement and mental health advocates have spoken out before about how the United States is dysfunctional in how it treats and categorizes the mentally ill, and how it takes care of those who suffer.

For example, a recent case involved Biya Belayneh who was already clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia, hypomania, and bipolar disorder. He was wrongfully accused of assaulting a cellmate in jail and was put into solitary confinement. He spent a year there before he was released after the truth was finally acknowledged and he was deemed innocent.

According to his mother, Tizita Belachew, Biya struggled and became worse after being in solitary confinement. She said that “He was worse than when he got in” and he was “more isolated.”

Tony Thompson, who is a Sheriff at Iowa’s Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office, spoke out saying that many people who suffer from mental illness are left to suffer behind bars, which in turn makes them worse.

“We’re the greatest country in the world, but we leave people behind and then we pretend like they don’t exist and we cannot simply arrest our way out of this problem,” he said.

Thompson wrote a book regarding this topic entitled, Anyplace but Here: The Uncomfortable Convergence Between Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System. He said that approximately 60% of the inmates in his county jail suffer from mental illnesses.

Thompson writes, “In America today, the fastest-growing population in prison is not Blacks, Hispanics, or toothless methamphetamine addicts. It’s the mentally ill. We are criminalizing our brothers and our sisters, our neighbors and our friends at an alarming and increasing pace.”

Studies show that about 43% of state prisoners and 23% of federal prisoners have a history of problems dealing with those with mental health issues. The issue of police officers taking mentally ill people into custody, instead of getting them help, has been growing.

In Biya Belachew’s situation, he was diagnosed at a young age but spent his life combating drugs, alcohol, law enforcement, and homelessness. Although his mother tried hard to get him to be in a mental health facility, she stated that “it was difficult because he was over 18.”

Many courtrooms are starting to understand the importance of mental health and how to treat those who are suffering from it. Thompson, among others, has a goal to change the way law enforcement behaves with mentally unstable patients and how they can avoid taking them into custody and instead get them the help they need.

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