Saturday, June 23, 2007

The criminalization of mental illness under capitalism

Friday, June 22, 2007
By: Crystal Kim

Prisons replace hospital care

The writer is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and research coordinator of a free-standing psychiatric clinic.

Whether it is Cho Seung-Hui and the Virginia Tech killings or Angela Yates and the murders of her young children, mental illness is an underlying factor in many tragedies in the United States. Approximately 1,000 homicides a year are committed by mentally ill individuals who are not receiving proper treatment.

This comes as no surprise. In the United States—the richest country in the world—the healthcare system is not designed to treat the mentally ill. Rather, mental illness is ignored until the problem explodes.

The largest mental health facility in the United States is not a hospital. It is the Los Angeles County Jail, which holds 3,000 mentally ill inmates on any given day.

The more than 10,000 mentally ill inmates incarcerated in New York state prisons surpass the number of patients in the state’s psychiatric hospitals.

About 10 percent of prisoners suffer from mental illness. Most have committed misdemeanors caused either in whole or in part by psychiatric disorders. They need treatment, not incarceration. Yet, the federal government and state authorities use tax dollars to keep them locked up in subhuman conditions, exacerbating the problem.

This alarming trend began in the 1960s. Since then, jails and prisons have become the new psychiatric hospitals for the mentally ill. Driven by corporate greed, the mentally ill in the United States are being punished for their mental ailments.

Working-class people with mental health problems are the most vulnerable to becoming victims of the system.

Corporate and government collaboration

In 1955, 560,000 people in the United States were being treated for mental health problems in state hospitals. Adjusting for population increase, we would expect there to be about 930,000 individuals being treated in state hospitals today. This is not the case. Fewer than 55,000 people are being treated in such facilities.

Where then are the hundreds of thousands of people with mental health issues? Most are imprisoned by, or otherwise caught up in, the legal system. Between 170,000 and 300,000 mentally ill individuals suffer today in jails and prisons. Another 500,000 are on court-ordered probation.

Since 1960, more than 90 percent of state psychiatric hospital beds have been eliminated. Mental health professionals and sociologists call this "deinstitutionalization." As a result of this phenomenon, many mentally ill patients who need hospital care are in prison instead.

What’s behind deinstitutionalization? In short, the culprit is capitalism.

In 1952, French surgeon Henri Laborit began experimenting with a drug called chlorpromazine. Chlorpromazine was originally developed to treat allergies, but Laborit tested it to see if it could sedate his patients before surgery. Laborit found that chlorpromazine made his patients feel very relaxed. Laborit convinced his colleagues, psychiatrists Jean Delay and Pierre Deniker, to administer chlorpromazine to schizophrenic patients. To their surprise, the most disturbed patients became calm and placid. This was a major breakthrough in psychopharmacology.

Upon hearing about the success of chlorpromazine as a psychiatric drug, the pharmaceutical company that had developed chlorpromazine, Rhone-Poulec, sold the rights to another pharmaceutical company—Smith Kline & French. Known today as GlaxoSmithKline, it is the second largest pharmaceutical company in the world. In 2006, GSK earned $13billion in profits.

Smith Kline flew Deniker all around the United States to speak with psychiatrists about the psychiatric treatment properties of chlorpromazine. The company hoped it could sell chlorpromazine on the U.S. market. When this plan failed, Smith Kline undertook a new approach.

Smith Kline arranged for Deniker to meet with state legislators. Deniker explained to them that state governments could save millions of dollars by prescribing chlorpromazine to mentally ill patients housed in state hospitals. He argued that this would allow patients to be deemed well enough to be discharged. This, of course, would earn Smith Kline billions in profits.

Without regard for whether a patient could continue to afford the drug after discharge, and ignoring its dangerous side effects, state legislators were thrilled by the prospect of no longer having to fund treatment for the mentally ill. State hospitals were already under fire for cruel and inhumane treatment of mentally ill patients. Such treatment was depicted in the popular novel-turned-film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest."

With chlorpromazine, state legislators were able to kill two birds with one stone. They could save millions of dollars by emptying psychiatric hospital beds, while also escaping public criticism for the appalling quality of treatment in state hospitals. The lawmakers enthusiastically accepted Smith Kline’s proposal.

Smith Kline marketed chlorpromazine under the name Thorazine. In the first eight months on the market, it was administered to over 2 million patients. In the first 10 years, it was administered to 50 million people. Within 15 years, Smith Kline’s revenues had doubled three times.

The advent of Thorazine, followed by the establishment of Medicaid and Medicare, led the White House to believe that perhaps state psychiatric hospitals were not necessary at all.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Act. This law authorized Congress to spend up to $3 billion to build a national network of community mental health centers to replace state psychiatric hospitals. Congress proudly stated that the community mental health centers would allow even the most severely ill patients to be near home as long as they were taking Thorazine.

State hospitals began emptying their beds almost immediately. Between 1955 and 1994, the number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals decreased from over 500,000 to less than 100,000. From 1963 to 1980, alone, the inpatient population fell more than 75 percent.

The community mental health centers that were promised by Kennedy and Congress, however, were never built. The promise of $3 billion in funding was a big lie. The government turned its attention to "more pressing" matters, namely prosecuting the war of aggression against the Vietnamese people and covering up the Watergate scandal.

Hundreds of thousands of mentally ill patients were dumped onto the streets. This was due to government collaboration to meet the capitalists’ bottom line. By the 1980s, many former patients began arriving in jails and prisons. This trend is called "transinstitutionalization."

Into the prison system

The U.S. population increased by 16 percent between 1980 and 1995. In that period, the number of incarcerated people rose from 501,886 to 1,587,791—an increase of 216 percent!

Have people in the United States become that much more "criminal?" No. The repressive capitalist state apparatus has been extended. Deinstitutionalization has made jails a "repository" of the mentally ill. Instead of being treated as a medical matter, mental illness is being punished as a criminal matter.

A 1973 study of Santa Clara County in California shows that the county jail population rose 300 percent in four years. This jump followed the closure of Agnews State Psychiatric Hospital, located in the same county. (L.A. Teplin, "Journal of Hospital & Community Psychiatry," 1983)

A 1992 Public Citizen survey showed that 29 percent of jails in the United States incarcerate people who have no charges against them but are simply waiting for a psychiatric evaluation, a hospital bed, or transportation to a psychiatric hospital.

Moreover, most severely mentally ill people in jail are incarcerated because they have been charged with a misdemeanor due to an underlying psychiatric disorder. (E.F. Torrey, "Out of the shadows: Confronting America’s mental illness crisis." John Wiley & Sons, 1997)

For example, one mentally ill prisoner in Miami was arrested 26 times in six years for minor crimes such as panhandling and being a "sanitary nuisance." A schizophrenic prisoner in Denver was jailed over 28 times in two years for causing disturbances. In his lifetime, he had been jailed over 100 times.

On average, the mentally ill are jailed six times longer than other inmates charged with the same crime.

Case in point: Miami

What are the conditions like for the mentally ill in U.S. jails and prisons?

Former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley got an unprecedented look at Miami’s main jail—Miami-Dade Pretrial Detention Center. Earley’s investigation was prompted when his own son was thrown into the criminal "justice" system due to a severe mental illness. Earley described his observations of the Miami jail in "Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness." (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006)

Earley’s description is purely observational, not analytical. Nonetheless, he gives valuable insight into the plight of the mentally ill.

According to Earley, on an average day Miami-Dade Pretrial Detention Center has 700 inmates on antipsychotic drugs. Most of these inmates get locked up on the ninth floor, officially known as the "primary psychiatric unit" but referred to as the "forgotten floor." Inmates are held in large group cells with as many as 50 persons in each cell.

The guards on the ninth floor do not receive special training on how to handle mentally ill inmates. Nurses on the ninth floor earn $2,000 less per year than nurses in Miami hospitals.

The ninth floor has three wings, one of which is reserved for suicidal inmates. Mentally ill inmates who have attempted suicide are held in solitary confinement in cells that have shatter-resistant glass fronts. They are kept naked, and the temperature of the entire wing is kept at around 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) to deter "trouble."

Each cell has a plastic bed built so the prisoner can be strapped to it spread-eagled. Suicidal inmates are not given sheets, blankets or pillows. They are not allowed to have any sort of entertainment, including radio, magazines and books. They have nothing to do but sleep or look out the glass front. Under these sadistic conditions, a suicidal individual’s mental health can only further deteriorate.

There is only one psychiatrist for the entire ninth floor, which allows him to spend an average of 12.7 seconds with each inmate on any given day. He has no authority or time to perform comprehensive mental exams. There is no doctor-patient confidentiality.

The psychiatrist is required to prescribe cheaper drugs to mentally ill inmates even if they report responding well to a different drug. Switching drugs can cause a mentally ill person’s condition to rapidly deteriorate. But this is a risk that Miami’s decision-makers are willing to take to cut down on expenses.

This is a snapshot of what life is like for hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people in the United States today.

Crisis rooted in capitalism

Until the early 19th century, the mentally ill were regularly imprisoned. The work of activists like Dorothea Dix forced legislators to build psychiatric hospitals so that the mentally ill could be treated.

Two hundred years later, the gains have been negated by the inexhaustible greed of capitalists and the politicians they keep in their pockets.

The U.S. mental health system is one example of the wanton greed enforced by the capitalist system. Capitalism upholds the ownership of private property by a few rich capitalists, while the rest of us are exploited in varying degrees. Capitalism is geared toward generating profit, not attending to people’s needs.

Capitalism has made illness into a source of billions in profits for pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline each year.

It is cheaper for the state, and more profitable for private corporations, to imprison mentally ill people than to treat them. State governments pay private companies that run psychiatric hospitals regardless how much care they provide their patients and how good or bad that care is. Keeping beds empty increases the owners’ profit margins. Therefore, hospitals push toward prematurely discharging patients rather than ensuring them sufficient treatment.

It does not have to be this way.

The healthcare system must be stripped of its profit motive. This would ensure that patient care is the very top priority. Funding could be used for research and better training of healthcare workers, so that the deplorable conditions common in state psychiatric hospitals of the past are not repeated. Without the profit motive governing health care, aggressive, community-based, long-term follow-up care and treatment could become a reality.

This can only happen through a monumental struggle to reorganize health care so that it benefits people and not predatory drug companies, insurance companies and private hospitals. The healthcare system, along with capitalism itself, must be overturned to meet the needs of all people, especially those with mental illnesses who need help the most.

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