Left untreated, an individual with a serious mental illness is likely to suffer further as their symptoms worsen, and their perception of the world around them gets more and more out of touch. A recent survey conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) and the National Sheriffs' Association has found that patients with a severe mental illness are ten times more likely to end up in a state prison rather than a state mental hospital.

“The lack of treatment for seriously ill inmates is inhumane and should not be allowed in a civilized society,” lead researcher and founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, said in a statement. “This is especially true for individuals who – because of their mental illness – are not aware they are sick and therefore refuse medication.” 

Torrey and his colleagues from both the TAC and the National Sheriff’s Association probed the records of state run prisons and mental hospitals in discovering where the majority of patients with a psychiatric illness end up. Unfortunately, jails and prisons are considered the largest institutions housing individuals with a serious mental illness. Findings revealed that only 35,000 patients with a mental illness are being kept in a hospital setting compared to 356,000 who currently reside in a prison or jail cell.

Researchers called the outcome of mistreatment experienced by some mentally ill inmates “usually harmful and sometimes tragic.” Due to their erratic or disruptive behavior, many inmates with a psychiatric disorder are at danger to being beaten, raped, self-mutilated, or suicidal. Mentally ill inmates also run the risk of being thrown into solitary confinement or having physical restraints placed on them for most of their day. Although moving inmates with a serious mental illness to a more suitable institution would be in their best interest, the research team said states and counties would also benefit from the funds that would be saved on corrections.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, upward of 13.6 million adults in the United States are currently living with a serious mental illness. Many Americans may be surprised to find out what exactly is included as a serious mental illness. Major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder all fall under the category of serious mental illness. One in four Americans experiences a mental illness in a given year.