A Difficult Bridge To Navigate - Mental Illness and The South Dakota Criminal Justice System

Mental health care is a lot like prison. Over worked and underpaid staff reward good behavior and favor compliant patients. Troublesome patients are often ignored to their detriment or they are penalized due to the symptoms they exhibit. It is a reality that mental patients are often sent to jail for containment having committed no crime.

People living with mental illnesses often cannot comply with social norms and rules that leave them ostracized from a society that values fitting in, keeping up with the Jones’s and achieving “the American Dream." They are not breaking laws as much as they stand out for being different, odd, or weird. The stigmas surrounding mental illness are such that the illnesses only get worse with societal shunning. Little or nothing is taught to children about compassion for people living with bipolar or schizophrenia. Adults maintain old school beliefs about pulling oneself up by the boot straps if you are feeling depressed. The result is an entire population of people struggling with scientifically-proven illnesses being ignored and even harmed by a cold and undervalued system ill equipped to do its job.

Imagine that mental health care was approached the same way as cancer or diabetes. Well-funded clinics could treat the overwhelming majority of the ill with specialists devoted to the study of the mind available to treat more serious and unique cases. I assure you, if there weren’t stigmas associated with health, these facilities and the funds needed to create them would exist. Millions of people would find help and hope. Lives would be saved.