Our Neglected Mental Health System


Manteno State Hospital, Illinois. Opened in 1930, Manteno State Hospital was once the largest psychiatric hospital in the United States, with a peak population of 8,195. The hospital closed for good in 1985.

In the first class of my first day of graduate school when I was studying clinical psychology, the professor stood in front of us and asked, “When we think about the mentally ill, what do they have in common the world over? In every country on earth, this one fact is true of all mentally ill people. What is it?” The answer? They are ignored.

A recent piece by Liz Szabo of USA Today titled The Cost of Not Caring: Nowhere to Go offers an in-depth exploration of the current state of mental health care in the United States. Echoing what my professor said years ago, the situation can be summed up in one word: neglect.

Nearly 40% of adults with “severe” mental illness — such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — received no treatment in the previous year, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Among adults with any mental illness, 60% were untreated.

Szabo’s story is broken down into four relatively short chapters, each of which focuses on one topic and one individual: 1) Our neglected mental health care system, 2) Jails and homeless shelters have become the “new asylums,” 3) Emergency rooms overwhelmed by patients with mental health needs, and 4) Disappearing mental health services as programs are cut nationwide.

If you have the time, I recommend Szabo’s piece as a good overview of some of the aspects of the problem. It is a complicated issue, with many causes, and no single story can capture all of it. But I am glad to see the topic is getting more attention. If you are truly interested, you may want to visit the mental health advocacy website mentalillnesspolicy.org. There you’ll find dozens of links to articles, essays, surveys, policy papers, legal rulings, and summaries on every mental health policy topic imaginable.

Further exploration:

Mental Association for Greater Chicago’s Mental Health Services Directory for the greater Chicago area.

Mental Illness in America radio episode from BackStory.

States are cutting back on psychiatric hospital beds, despite increasing demand.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio is looking into ways to reduce the city’s population of mentally ill jail inmates.

The United Kingdom is grappling with its own mental health crisis in London.

Doctors in Ireland are warning of a “suicide crisis.”

More than half of agencies serving children and adolescents in England cut funding over the last five years.


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