NAMI Ohio Conference addresses criminalization of mental illness

Dorothea-Dix NAMI Ohio 2015

It’s a startling statistic that nearly 20% of Ohio’s prison inmates are struggling with diagnosable mental illness in any given year. NAMI Ohio brought to the spotlight the fact that those suffering with a mental illness often find themselves incarcerated with no-where else to go. Terry Russell, Executive Director NAMI Ohio addressed the membership and introduced his guest, (actor) Dorothea Dix.  The 600 or so attendees were treated to a re-enactment of Dorothea Dix, mental health advocate of the 1870’s- in costume, exploring the difficulties and historic (mal)treatment of those with mental illness; how many were locked away and their diagnosis criminalized in her time.  There are still troublesome stats and plenty of stigma. For the NAMI membership, behavioral healthcare IS healthcare and merits the same care and attention. A video from Governor John Kasich addressed his concerns and what his office is doing.

Following Dix, keynote  speaker, Thomas J. Dart, Chicago’s Cook County Sheriff talked about the ‘Shameful Criminalization of Mental Illness in the Midwest and Beyond’ and what he has done in the Windy City to initiate change. Lee Dunham, President of NAMI Ohio then introduced the crowd to the ‘A Matter of Life, Strife or Death’  game. Members sitting at each table spun a wheel and picked up a card with a case history which matched a particular color card.  For the break-out sessions held after lunch, each case was presented in play enactment fashion in break-out rooms.

One case history example, ‘The Story of Nathan’ reads like this:  “1) You have schizophrenia. 2) One night, you are found wandering around the neighborhood speaking incoherently. 3) When the police arrive, they determine you are experiencing a mental health crisis and bring you to the emergency room.  4) You remain in the hospital for five days. You return home, where you live with your brother and his family. 5) For several months, you participate in treatment and take the medication your psychiatrist prescribes. 6) When you start to feel better, you decide to drop out of counseling and stop taking your medication. 7) Two weeks later, you wander nude into your neighbor’s house and are found asleep in their bed. 8) You are arrested for breaking and entering. This is the first time that you have been in trouble with the law.”’  In Act One, Nathan appears in Municipal Court. In Act Two, Nathan appears in Mental Health Court.  For this scenario, the cast includes Nathan, Attorney, Prosecutor, Judge and Narrator.

Tracy Plouck, Director of Ohio MHAS and Director Gary Mohr, Director Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, addressed the hundreds at the NAMI Ohio conference.  Mohr explained that a quarter of the Ohioans entering DRC system annually “have never been in trouble with the legal system before; specifically 25.4% of offenders entering prison have never been convicted of or committed an act of violence.  There are 10,596 on the mental health caseload; 4,161 are classified C1- as having serious mental illness; and 6,435 are classified as C2 or non-seriously ill.  Community mental health programs are 2x as effective at 1/3 of the cost.” State Attorney General Mike DeWine spoke about reform at the luncheon and initiatives of the Attorney General.

Afternoon speaker, Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton talked about the need for crisis beds and the importance of diversion (in lieu of prison); expansion of CIT (crisis intervention training); court-ordered outpatient assessments, training judges, expanding diversion and pre-trial intervention, specialized mental health dockets as have been done with Veterans, drug courts etc.), county + community planning teams, expansion of behavioral health programs, and more group homes.

The final outcome reveals that today, more than half of those with a mental health disorder went to jail- 56% state prisons; 64%  local prison. Only 22% are employed; 50% with mental health conditions at age 14 drop out of school; 26% are homeless; and many die prematurely-25 years earlier. Over 90% of those who die by suicide had 1 or more mental health disorders.  Change is desperately needed. That’s the platform; and on the bright side- attention is shining on the problem and recovery IS possible.


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Communications and Social Media @ Sequel-Pomegranate Health Systems
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