When Illness Is Treated as a Crime


FEATURING: Daleen O’Dell, mother and sister of individuals with serious mental illness, Cape Coral, Florida


Rise in Rhetoric Without Action

Mental health conditions have risen to the public consciousness recently in the face of national tragedies. While instances of violence among people with mental health conditions are extremely rare,i it has brought attention to the nation’s ailing behavioral health system. Early in 2013, following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Obama Administration held a national conference on mental healthii and Members of Congress promised to do something to improve the nation’s mental health system. Yet there has been virtually no new funding from the federal government and no new legislation enacted to improve mental health services.

For Daleen O’Dell and her family members who live with serious mental illness, this means few treatment options.

When Daleen’s brother and son—both diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder—have a mental health crisis, Daleen’s only option to guarantee her and their safety is to call the police. Under police escort, these men are either brought to jail, or the hospital. “I hate having to call the police, but the only place I know they are safe is in jail,” said Daleen. “They shouldn’t be in jail because they are sick, but that’s the only option.”

Floridians Need Access

One source of federal funding that aims to improve mental health is the community Mental Health Block Grant (MHBG), administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). SAMHSA leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation.iii The MHBG program provides funding and technical assistance to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and 6 Pacific jurisdictions. Grantees use these funds to provide comprehensive, community-based mental health services to adults with serious mental illnesses and to children with serious emotional disturbances and to monitor progress in implementing a comprehensive, community-based mental health system.iv

If Daleen and her family lived in a different state or even a different Florida county, there might be more options for access to treatment. Florida currently ranks last of all 50 states and the District of Columbia in mental health funding.v In 2010, Florida’s MHBG was used to fund 93 programs.vi In 2012, that number doubled, but the dollar amount increased by less than $700,000.vii In 2013, sequestration further reduced Florida’s grant by more than $1 million dollars.viii

Over the past 18 years, every time Daleen’s son, now 36, returned home after hospitalization or incarceration, he had few community-based options that met his needs. Other states, such as Georgia, have used part of their SAMHSA grants to fund peer support services to help navigate the mental health system in their community and peer run respite centers as an alternative to hospitals or emergency departments.ix Daleen explains:

Individuals need to be better equipped to help loved ones to stay at home. We need services to get help when you need it. We need something other than jail or the hospital.

It took almost 20 years, but now Daleen’s son is getting intensive treatment that is helping him lead a more independent life. Nobody should have to wait that long for recovery. Families like Daleen’s are the reason that SAMHSA has made prevention and early intervention services their number one priority.x

Mental Health America

i “Mental Illness Not Usually Linked to Crime, Research Finds.” Health Canal. http://www.healthcanal.com/mental-health-behavior/49979-mental-illness-not-usually-linked-to-crime-research-finds.html (accessed April 24, 2014).

ii Compton, Matt. “The National Conference on Mental Health.” The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/06/03/national-conference-mental-health (accessed March 26, 2014).

iii About Us.” Home. http://beta.samhsa.gov/about-us (accessed April 24, 2014).

iv Substance Abuse and Mental Health Block Grants.” Block Grants. http://beta.samhsa.gov/grants/block-grants (accessed April 24, 2014).

v Advocacy .” Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County, Inc.. http://www.mhapbc.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=pages.advocacy&Find a website by URL or keyword... (accessed April 24, 2014).

vi US Department of Health and Human Services. “Florida 2010 mental health national outcome measures (NOMS): CMHS uniform reporting system .” SAMHSA. http://www.samhsa.gov/dataoutcomes/urs/2010/Florida.pdf (accessed March 26, 2014).

vii US Department of Health and Human Services. “Florida 2012 mental health national outcome measures (NOMS): CMHS uniform reporting system .” SAMHSA. http://www.samhsa.gov/dataoutcomes/urs/2012/Florida.pdf (accessed March 26, 2014).

viii Fiscal Year 2014 Grant Announcements.” Grant Announcements. http://beta.samhsa.gov/grants/grant-announcements (accessed April 24, 2014).

ix “Peer Support Respite Wellness Centers.” SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions. http://www.integration.samhsa.gov/images/res/PDF,%20PSWRC.pdf (accessed April 24, 2014).

x SAMHSA’S Strategic Initiatives.” SAMHSA Content. http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content//SMA11-4666/SMA11-4666.pdf (accessed April 24, 2014).