Mental illness is a major pathway for entry into correctional facilities by Mississippi teens. A study from Mississippi State University reported that the majority (71 - 85%) of a group of 432 imprisoned Mississippi adolescents in their study had a mental health disorder and 1/3 of these had both a mental health disorder and a substance abuse disorder (Robertson, AA, 2004). In another study of adolescents in detention, 12% of boys and 19% of girls met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) definition for major depression and 3% were frankly psychotic (Fazels, 2008). The National Alliance of Mental Health reported that 34,000 children in Mississippi have serious mental health conditions and 43% of those so identified became high school dropouts (NAMI State Statistics: Mississippi, 2010, www.nami.org).
Either as a result of self medication by substance abuse of an existing mental illness or criminal behavior from an associated conduct disorder, many children and adolescents with serious mental illnesses end up in the criminal justice system (NAMS, 2010). In 2006, the number of incarcerated children in Mississippi with mental disorders was 444 at the time of a single assessment. Since the 1960s, when "deinstitutionalization" of mental patients began in the US, more and more individuals in the mental health system have been referred to community outpatient centers and the availability of inpatient hospitalization has drastically dropped (NSATAC at www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org). For instance, in 1955 there was one psychiatric hospital bed for every 300 Americans but by 2005 there was one bed for every 3,000 Americans. However, outpatient mental health facilities have not grown to meet this new demand. Many mental health professionals feel we have returned to the conditions of the 1840s by putting large numbers of mentally ill patients into prison.
In Mississippi, public mental health services are inadequate to meet existing needs. No more than 49% of adults with serious mental health issues receive assistance which explains at least in part the burden experienced by the criminal justice system with providing care to the mentally ill (NAMI, 2010, Ibid). Many, including leaders and law enforcement, feel imprisonment makes mental illness and its consequences worse, not better (Thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/4/09/3424352). Moreover, excess costs for prisoners with mental illness in the US are estimated to be more than 9 billion dollars a year (NAMI. Spending Money in all the Wrong Places).
So here is the bottom line. Available data show that common mental illnesses seen in incarcerated adults are the ones that usually emerge in adolescence and childhood and predate imprisonment. Early substance abuse often predates later incarceration. Data also show that substance abuse among children and adolescents with mental illness is common and appears to be a coping mechanism for the illness using self medication. Finally, individuals with mental health disorders have a higher repeat incarceration than those without (Schnitter J 2012).
There are possible solutions to the problem of mental health in children, all of which start with early diagnosis and long term treatment. It makes sense for poor states like Mississippi with high rates of childhood mental illness to save lives and money by investing in better mental health programs for children, adolescents and adults. This will only occur when the general public become informed of the gravity of the present situation and chooses to advocate for mental health care with politicians who control the support for our state mental health system.