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The recent death of Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, who had a history of mental illness and was found dead in a jail cell in Portsmouth, Virginia on Aug. 19, highlights the importance for elected officials and presidential hopefuls to address the nation’s mental health system.
Mitchell was arrested in April for allegedly stealing $5 in groceries from a 7-Eleven, including a Zebra Cake, Mountain Dew, and a Snickers bar, according to The Guardian.
His family told the news site that he suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and had refused to eat and take his medication. He was supposed to be moved to a state-run mental health facility, but the transfer got stuck in government red tape and he remained in jail, the report notes.
Mitchell is not the only one. Most notably, there was Sandra Bland, 28, whose autopsy report says she died of an apparent suicide by hanging on July 13 in a jail cell in Hempstead, Texas, after reportedly telling jail officials about mental health struggles; and Kalief Browder, 22, the New York City native who committed suicide two years after spending three years in the city’s Rikers Island jail without a conviction.
Over the years, the nation’s prisons and jails have become de facto warehouses for people with mental illness. The problem is the result of deinstitutionalization, a decades-old federal policy that closed poorly run mental institutions throughout the country, but failed to properly provide community-based housing and treatment alternatives for those with mental illness.
Think Progress, which notes that the prison system hosts ten times as many mentally ill people as state hospitals, describes prisons as “notoriously abusive, often withholding crucial medication, ignoring clear signs of illness, or punishing erratic behavior with solitary confinement.”
But aside from leaders associated with the powerful Black Lives Matter movement, which recently released a policy agenda including plans to tackle the mental health crisis, only a few 2016 presidential candidates have addressed the national problem head on.
Last week, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump briefly spoke about problems in the nation’s mental health system after journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were gunned down live on air by a disgruntled co-worker.
Trump told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on New Day that the shooting was not related to issues of gun control, but mental illness, which is “a massive problem” in the U.S. He argued that more effort should be made to address the nation’s mental health problems.
Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told attendees at a forum in Keene, New Hampshire, “mental-health issues and substance-abuse issues should be treated as health issues,” reports the Wall Street Journal.
And in July, she condemned Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad for closing two state mental hospitals, reports the Des Moines Register:
“There are 128,000 Iowans with some kind of mental health challenge, and there is nowhere for most of those people to get the treatment they need,” the Democratic presidential candidate told about 60 supporters gathered at a private home.
On Sunday during an interview with CNN about gun control, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was asked about making mental health treatment more easily available.
“When people have mental health issues, when they’re a threat to others or themselves, they should be able to get counseling immediately. That is not the case right now,” he said.
Still, the problems of mental health are not being addressed enough on the campaign trail outside of issues of gun control and criminal justice reform. While we are happy the candidates are acknowledging criminal justice reform and gun control, they also need to address the nation’s mental health crisis so that victims like Mitchell, Bland, and Browder can seek help before it’s too late.
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