Where Is the Outrage for the Mentally Ill?

Each week seems to bring another outrage to Americans. Last year, we were outraged by the treatment of immigrants—of locking children in cages. A few years before that was the “me too” movement. Practically every woman in the U.S. had a “me too” story, and we were—understandably—collectively outraged. 

Most recently, Americans have voiced their outrage about the treatment of Black people by police. And rightly so. These police killings are unjust and indefensible. 

But there is another group who is discriminated against, marginalized, mistreated and misunderstood—yet no one seems to care. Few people express outrage—or even concern— except their families. 

For those with first-hand knowledge of brain illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—the public’s ambivalence is baffling. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in a police altercation. And nearly a quarter of people killed by police had mental illnesses. Yet no one marches for them.

Though the deaths of Daniel Prude and the 13-year-old boy with autism—whose families called police because of a mental health crisis—were covered widely in the media, the headlines largely centered on race and autism, not mental illness. 

We need a national conversation about how we treat people with mental illness. If a person is having a “mental health emergency”—usually a euphemism for psychosis due to a brain illness—the police show up instead of an ambulance. For many families, calling the police is the only way to get treatment for their loved one. Mental illness is a medical issue, not a criminal one.

For families of the mentally ill, getting adequate treatment for their loved one is extraordinarily difficult. Prude was discharged from the hospital after only three hours the day before he was killed. With a different kind of medical emergency—such as a cardiac arrest—he would never have been discharged before stabilization. 

Premature discharge is but one of the many ways discrimination is built into the health care system. Shortages of inpatient beds and psychiatrists, underfunding of services and lack of mental health parity are other barriers to treatment. 

Families of people with mental illness have long demanded change. But the lack of public outrage signals that it will be a long wait.