Across the United States, police, jail officials, and emergency room physicians are often the only service providers available around the clock to respond to people with untreated mental illness and substance use disorders.
People with mental health conditions—including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and severe depression—are jailed more than 2 million times each year, often for misdemeanor crimes. Three-quarters of these individuals have co-occurring substance use disorders. The Washington Post noted in 2018 that 1 in 4 people shot by police the prior year suffered from mental distress, according to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center.
People of color make up a disproportionate percentage of those in the criminal justice system, but are less likely to be identified for signs of potential mental illness and to receive treatment once incarcerated.
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported that ethnic minority groups are less likely than White people to have access to mental health services, more likely to use emergency rooms over community mental health services, and more likely to receive lower-quality care.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, many communities struggled to sufficiently address individuals in crisis with mental health conditions. And amid a pandemic, jails and hospitals will likely have even more difficulty responding to people dealing with a mental health crisis—even though the demand for such services may become more acute.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, in partnership with philanthropic and nonprofit organizations from the health and justice sectors, has launched a national effort to encourage communities to offer a continuum of appropriate services and not just decrease the number of people in jails with a mental health concern. Our shared goal is to ensure that police, jails, and emergency rooms are not the default response to people with mental health needs.
The project aims to address these challenges by:
- Promoting state policies that increase the likelihood that people with acute mental health needs are connected to effective community-based services.
- Supporting in-state capacity through a national network of backbone organizations that work directly with communities to collect and analyze data, provide technical assistance, facilitate strong execution, ensure accountability, and build sustainable support for change. The project is currently engaged in Texas to research state policies and develop recommendations for best practices.
- Developing incentive funding strategies with local philanthropy and state and local governments.
- Leading a national effort to support new research, highlight successful reforms and share lessons learned, and explore opportunities for the federal government to bolster and facilitate additional improvements at the state and local level.