Mental health and the criminal justice system: Can Minnesota do better?

Mental illness and gun violence
State legislators joined sheriffs from around the metro area at a news conference to talk about mental illness and gun violence Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 at the State Office Building in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson for MPR News 2013

There are a variety resources for those seeking help with mental illness in Minnesota — but experts say we can and need to do better.

During a panel discussion at the St. Paul Sunrise Rotary on April 20, three professionals working in criminal justice and mental health care suggested various ways to help diagnose problems early, reduce stigma and better intervene before a crisis.

It starts with identifying who needs help — and making sure they receive it.

"I think one of the issues that we see, especially with family members, is that they can't get help," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota. "We had a woman last summer that called whose young relative who was developing schizophrenia and the next appointment was three months."

During these wait times, there's a good chance someone with symptoms of schizophrenia will end up either hurt or in jail as their reaction to delusions gain the attention of police, Abderholden said.

More financial resources are necessary to shorten these wait times for people who need care immediately, she said.

When police encounter any crime, the distinction between what is mental illness and what is criminal activity can be very complicated.

"The elements of crimes and the characteristics of crimes often have a connection to mental illness or some crisis," said Tom Roy, commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. "It rises to the crisis stage before it's really dealt with."

And when it comes to treating those in need once they're in correctional facilities, again resources are very limited, he added.

Making investments in the mental health care system a priority over funding for incarceration is how we fix the problem, Abderholden said.

"We have studied this issue to death, the last thing we need is another study. We know exactly what to do," she said. "Access to treatment, build our workforce, make sure that we help children."

Dr. Eduardo Colon, adult psychiatry chief at Hennepin County Medical Center, agrees funding is a big problem, but so is the stigma surrounding mental illness.

"We have a bias that a lot of times is perpetrated or enhanced by the media where it's brought to our attention when a horrible criminal act has been committed that includes a lot of violence by someone with mental illness," Colon said. "And therefore we begin to equate mental illness with aggression, with severe violence and with criminal acts. And unfortunately, that represents a small portion of the people that we serve."

By recognizing that people with mental illness are not separate from society, and pay attention to them like we would any family member or neighbor, we can start to help them early on and avoid any crimes that might occur because of their illness, he said.

MPR's Tom Crann moderated the panel.

To listen to their discussion, click the audio player above.

Further reading

• 2013 report: Evaluating mental health of crime suspects a tough task

• Related: Despite law, mentally ill wait in jail without treatment

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