The Criminalization🚨of Mental Illness

There are a lot of articles out there all over the internet, newspapers, and mental health forums talking about the increasing violence in the community stemming from inadequate mental health awareness, access to treatment, and laws surrounding forced treatment. Even more abundant is writing on people with severe and persistent mentally illness in the corrections system due to a fundamental misunderstanding of mentally ill needs for rehabilitation. In some cases, the mentally ill are remanded to jail without offending due to bed shortages in psychiatric hospitals. Whatever the reason people with a mental illness intersect with the courts, and/or corrections departments, the manner in which law enforcement handles and interacts with the mentally ill must change. I am talking about the police, courts, judges, lawyers, and people charged with the processing of mentally ill people suspected to have committed crimes and thus, under the auspices of criminal justice system for rehabilitation.

There is also a rising number of articles on school shootings, violence in our university system, and other unfortunate incidents rooted in again, a fundamental lack of awareness of mental health issues associated with students in general, and more importantly, the developmental and systemic underlying factors for university students to be in crisis. Most traditional college students entering college between ages 17–19 years of age have never have been diagnosed with a mental health illness in their life. However, there is an important caveat to remember here. There is no question many people go undiagnosed in high school suffering from depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health issues without treatment. These are students entering college without support services, or insight enough into their mental health to get help when they need it since they have never been in crisis before. For most students living away from home for the first time in their lives or just attending college in their own community as a commuter, research suggests the risk of having a new mental Health disorder going undiagnosed during their college years is high, especially if they were never diagnosed in high school. For students with a previous diagnosis, I recommend securing your mental health service early on and even before matriculation into college. Many treatment centers, in rural areas especially, have long wait lists for services and treatment options are far and few between in some cases.

In my case, as a student in upstate New York at Binghamton University, I already had an existing diagnosis from high school. Suffering from some anxiety and depressive symptoms I was recommended to find services in college. The irony though, and important lesson from my college experience wasn’t that my existing illness went untreated, the problem instead was the emergence of a new diagnosable condition and totally new disorder developed. I am talking about my Schizophrenia condition which in most cases for this disorder the symptoms begin to activate in early adulthood, and for most traditional college students, these are the years that people are truly at risk of becoming sick.

Like I talked about earlier, I was connected to treatment already, aware of my existing illness, and knew how to get help when I needed it. But back in 2008, when my schizophrenia became activated, I wasn’t aware of my symptoms and their impact on my behavior and perception. At the time, I was an English major applying to graduate school. I was also a very eager student to learn, connect with the professors of my classes in the English department. There is no question that I stood out among other students, if not for the large volume of time spent on campus and in the department offices, then it was for speaking with staff or walking around campus all day and into the night. As my condition developed, and I began to unravel, I was even more visible to the staff. Indeed, I was in the department offices so often and behaving so bizarrely that the department contacted the Dean and the University Ombudsman to enact a set of rules and establish boundaries between the department staff and my ongoing presence in the office.

While some staff members suggested I had a mental health problem at that time, and indeed, I was sent for an evaluation to determine if I was safe to continue as a student, but, alas, I passed the evaluation, and returned to the classroom the same day more confused than ever, and frustrated and angry with staff from suggesting there was an issue with my behavior at the time. In my eyes, at that time, I was simply trying to continue as a student after being rejected for further study in graduate school. I thought I was in uncharted territory, and I guess, in some respects, I was, because students that get rejected from graduate school are usually not already enrolled as a student in the college’s bachelors program and quite often, if they are, finish there schooling upon completion of their degree. In my case, I kept going. Applying for non-matriculated graduate courses, and other classes, to stay connected to the University and figure out a path to acceptance into a graduate program. While retrospectively, even after my recovery, my logic doesn’t seem completely irrational, it was bizarre, and extremely distressing to the staff involved at the time. Like I said though, I was already on their radar, and still didn’t get connected to the treatment I needed so desperately at the time. Instead, one day, upon entering the department office, the graduate secretary of the English Department picked up the phone and called the police. I still remember walking into that office, looking up, and seeing the secretary pick up the phone and say: “I am calling the police”. Believing I was a victim, I didn’t think the police would do anything or respond to her call. I was wrong, again, and within minutes, I was approached by the university police, who handcuffed me in the department corridor, and walked me out of the building, only to put my person in the police car and take me to the university barracks.

Very much visible and now on everyone’s radar, I found myself handcuffed to a pole in the university police barracks, crying uncontrollably, and very agitated. Now, if my illness then, its identification, or rather, misidentification, wasn’t taken seriously prior to being arrested by the department or university staff, it certainly wasn’t handled well afterwards by the police on campus. The charge was loitering, and the original document detailing the incidents summary, crime, and participants is the image above this articles title in this blog entry. It summarizes no real crime, just the mishandling of my mental health condition, and yet another missed opportunity for connecting this writer to a mental health service or intervention that could have identified my new condition before it worsened further. Instead, I was left to my own devices, feeling like a victim, and totally petrified of the staff on campus. Certainly, I was not going to go to them for help. Even If I thought I had a problem moving forward after being arrested, I wouldn’t go to staff to address it. In my case, I was left isolated, agitated, and totally without treatment, help, or an intervention by the university that could have halted the progression of my schizophrenia before full blown psychosis and state hospitalization.

On a more global level, what happens to students that are not on the campus radar? These are the students I talked about earlier, the undiagnosed high school students at risk of going without treatment in college. Are these students, too, left to their own devices if they are in crisis on campus? These are the students I fear for, the students without a voice, without support, insight into their own mental health, and without access to treatment when the time comes. Anxiety disorders from stress, depression, and in cases like mine, schizophrenia, among a catalog other conditions that college students are more at risk for and prone to due to systemic systems issues with treatment on campus and developmental organic risk for brain disease and mental illness. In my case I had a therapist, and still, my diagnosis went untreated and misidentified by school staff and my own therapist. I cannot imagine what might have happened if I didn’t have any help at all, or people observing my communication with school staff, and reporting on my behavior at department meetings. While the manner in which the department handled my situation was abysmal, it was still handled on some level. Indeed, their was some level of oversight, however clumsy, regarding the treatment of my condition by staff and my therapist in the community communicating and coordinating with the university. If I had gone without any assistance, like many students in college do, this article’s conclusion may have been different. But until colleges have adequate mental health services, and approach individuals with a mental health diagnosis, or suspected diagnosis, with dignity and respect, students will continue to be the very first victim of the society’s criminalization of mental illness.

When I returned to the Binghamton University a year later as a graduate student in social work, I visited the English department. I spoke with the department’s staff and learned the very next year, another student had a serious mental health crisis. The staff informed me that this time this particular student’s situation was handled more appropriately, and that the extreme nature of my crisis and it’s unfortunate outcome finally signaled to staff that mental health crises require a different approach than when I was spinning out. Indeed, we learn from our mistakes, at a macro level as a society and at a micro level as individuals. In the case presented here I would hazard to say mistakes were made by both the system at the university level and by individual staff involved with handling my situation in the department. There is no question events unfolding in Binghamton in 2008 and events that followed mirrors a larger fundamental problem existent in our approach to mental health systemically in the higher education system and as people that intersect the legal system as a result of their mental health diagnosis.

Be sure to also read the blog entry Contesting Admission if you like this post. Contesting Admission has been edited from its original version after my recovery from Schizophrenia for the benefit of the reader. Contesting Admission is one extended metaphor that seeks to capture the events unfolding in 2008 within the Binghamton University English Department immediately following the Graduate’s School decision not to admit this writer into the English Masters program. The paper was written while I descended into a psychotic episode, isolated, and very disconnected from reality. The new edited version of Contesting Admission allows the reader to evaluate the clinical picture & my mental status as the story progresses.

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