Thursday, September 24, 2015

Brave New Films: This is Crazy

In a previous post, I discussed my thoughts on Frontline's New Asylums documentary, about the overcriminalization of the mentally ill. Millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on housing the mentally ill in prisons, when they could be treated more affordably (and more humanely) by the community. Because that video (filmed in 2005) left me with a lot of questions, I looked up some more recent resources. Of the videos I watched, my favorite was a series created by Brave New Films.

Brave New Films: Why are we using prisons to treat mental illness?

The video begins by dramatically pointing out a problem: police and correctional officers are not trained to deal with mentally ill “offenders,” which results in unnecessary deaths. This is an issue that I’ve already been seething about in my home suburb here in Minnesota. There have been a few times in recent years when our police have killed mentally ill people that they have been called to help. For instance, an officer shot a knife-wielding suicidal teen after his family called the police for help. Because the police are untrained to deal with mentally ill, families are left in a quandary: they sometimes don’t feel safe around their mentally ill loved one, but they don’t want to call the police for fear that their loved one will either be killed or get tied up indefinitely in a revolving-door judicial system.

The video continues by describing the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program. In CIT, officers are trained to drop the authoritative attitude that they are supposed to use in non-crisis occasions. They are trained to use soothing and empathetic tones of voice to disarm the mentally ill. The video included a heartwarming interview with a mother of a schizophrenic man who is grateful for the CIT officers’ treatment of her son during a crisis – how the officers managed to defuse the situation without anyone getting hurt or being sent to jail. 

CIT officers in San Antonio can now bring mentally ill people to treatment centers instead of emergency rooms. This change keeps ER and officer overtime costs down. (Officers must be paid overtime because they spend hours in the ER waiting for the “offenders” to get psych evaluations.) An officer on the video claims that in the past 5 years they’ve saved about $50 million of taxpayer money by utilizing CIT and treatment centers. 

Watching this video made me feel optimistic about the future of mental health. There’s a lot of work to be done – a lot of training to do, a lot of lobbying to resistant politicians (and an unsympathetic public), a lot of treatment centers to be built – but there is a solution. New Asylums was a fantastic documentary, but it left me feeling hopeless. I’m happy I found the Brave New Films’ snippet. 

I also watched this Brave New Films documentary:

Brave New Films: This is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health

This video begins in much the same way as Why are we using prisons to treat mental illness, providing different examples. It continues by discussing brutality within prisons, and the over-use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates. One mentally ill woman claims that of the 18 years she spent in prison, 4 of them were in solitary confinement. Each person in solitary confinement costs taxpayers $75,000 a year; compared to the $16,000 a year per person in supportive housing. 

Finally, This is Crazy discusses the fate of prisoners once they are released from prison. As discussed in New Asylums, prison is like a revolving door for the mentally ill. Most of the homeless population are mentally ill. They break laws either because they are delusional or because they have basic needs. When they are arrested, they spend 3 to 4 times more jail time than "normal" inmates. They often get shuttled back and forth between stabilization hospitals and jail (where their psychiatric treatment, and their mental state, degenerates). When released, they are given 2 weeks' worth of medication and are left out on the streets again - with nowhere to look for treatment. Despite the fact that community treatment would save taxpayer money, the first item on the political finance chopping block are treatment centers and institutions for mental illness. 

The take-home point of these documentaries is that because police are not trained to deal with mentally ill people in crisis, many mentally ill people end up being abused, killed, or put in a revolving door prison system. Once a mentally ill person has a bad experience with cops, he is likely to be fearful and uncooperative in the future. I have seen this myself. I have a mentally ill friend who suffers from PTSD after being brutalized by police for a case of mistaken identity. Now whenever he sees a cop, even if the cop is completely uninterested in him, my friend goes into a blind panic. I strongly suspect that my friend wouldn’t have been brutalized by the cops if he hadn’t been mentally ill. Another important point is that outrageous amounts of taxpayer money would be saved, and deserving human beings would be treated with compassion, if only cities around the US would develop CIT programs and fund more treatment centers. If only the taxpayers and politicians would listen to reason.

This is a series of posts summarizing what I'm learning in my Abnormal Psychology course. Much of the information provided comes from reading my James N. Butcher's textbook Abnormal Psychology. To read the other posts, follow these links: 

The Definition of Abnormal
A History of Abnormal Psychology
Abnormal Psychology in Contemporary Society
Contemporary Viewpoints on Treating Mental Illness - Biology
Contemporary Viewpoints on Treating Mental Illness - Psychology
Frontline: New Asylums
Brave New Films: This is Crazy
Clinical Mental Health Diagnosis: Biological Assessment
Clinical Mental Health Diagnosis: Psychological Assessment
Does the DSM Encourage Overmedication?
Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome - The Basics
Panic Disorder
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Hoarding and Body Dysmorphic Disorders
Depression - an Overview
Personality Disorders - Clusters and Dimensions
Personality Disorders - Cluster A
Personality Disorders - Cluster B
Personality Disorders - Cluster C
Biological Effects of Stress on Your Body
Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders
Dissociative Disorders
Borderline Personality Disorder
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Paraphilic Disorders
Gender Dysphoria - Homosexuality and Transgender
Anxiety Disorders
Bipolar Disorder - The Basics
Suicide - An Overview


  1. Great post as always Rachel.

    This is such an important and interesting subject.

    I think to some extent I would have the same reaction as your friend if I was assaulted by police who mistook me for someone else.

    1. Thanks Brian! I agree that this is a very important topic. I'll probably be exploring more about prisons (not specifically in reference to mental illness) soon. Right now, I'm on an abnormal psychology kick, and I think it'll ride out through this semester.