Care of mentally ill pushed back to 1800s

An article in the Feb. 12 edition of The (Toledo) Blade by Nicholas D. Kristof of Chicago states the care of our mentally ill has been pushed right back to the 1800s. In some ways, he’s right.

I have to quote him: “Psychiatric disorders are the only kind of sickness that we as a society regularly respond to not with sympathy, but with handcuffs and incarceration.”

It has long been my opinion that Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Boards (aka Mental Health and Recovery Services Boards) have one of the most difficult marketing plans to the public ever. How do we educate the public that someone with a mental illness is not trying to “game the system” by acting weird or depressed?

Just as a person who takes medication for hypertension can minimize symptoms, so too can the person minimize the symptoms of depression or schizophrenia by taking daily medications. Note: Neither the hypertension nor the mental illness is cured, but they can be better managed. I think this message is beginning to be heard.

However, educating the public that addiction is a disease, not a moral deficit, appears to be a harder task. I equate addiction with small-cell lung cancer, which is almost always associated with smokers. If you want to avoid small-cell lung cancer, don’t smoke! If you want to avoid addiction – especially when you have family members who are addicts – don’t screw around with alcohol, tobacco or drugs, including opiate pain killers!

Kristof shares that more than three times as many mentally ill people are housed in prisons and jails as in hospitals (according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center.) In the 1800s Dorothea Dix campaigned against imprisonment of mentally ill people, leading to the establishment of mental hospitals.

As funding for behavioral health is decreased, more people with mental illness are being incarcerated. While they’re not being arrested because they’re mentally ill, the symptoms of the mental illness often leads to the behavior that leads to the arrest.

As a society, we should be ashamed to have let jails become the new mental hospitals. According to Kristof, in 1955, one bed in a psychiatric ward was available for every 300 Americans. Now, according to the 2010 study, it’s one bed for every 3,000 Americans. If you’re looking for a cause to champion, let it be for the individuals for whom each of us should be saying, “… but for the grace of God, go I.”

Mental illness and addictions should not be surrounded by stigma and fear. These diseases should be treated with the same compassion – and the same resources – as a person diagnosed with heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

The Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties is committed to sharing information and resources for better mental health and the prevention of substance abuse. It has a website,, with a link to our Facebook page. If you would like more information, please call the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board at (419) 448-0640 between the hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. The board’s hotline is available 24/7 at (800) 826-1306.

Nancy Cochran,

executive director