Stop Criminalising Mental Illness

As someone who has been in the mental health system for years, something I have noticed happening a lot is the similarities between being a mental health patient and being a criminal.

When someone becomes unwell with a mental health problem then there is often a lot of blame. That blame can be directed in different ways, outsiders may blame the unwell person or their family, parents may blame themselves and the patient’s upbringing will be questioned. Whilst trauma and difficult upbringings can be a factor in someone’s presentation, it is completely possible for someone with a caring family and a positive upbringing to become unwell and this is not a rarity. When someone commits a crime then the person is blamed, their family is blamed and people will assume they had a bad upbringing. Notice the similarity?

In my experience, I have not always received caring care. Sometimes there is very little compassion or understanding and I have on occasion been treated as an annoyance or like I have done something wrong. When I needed a hug and someone to wipe my tears I was restrained, injected and shouted at. I have often felt like a naughty child. A criminal is treated much the same, not often are they met by a smiling, compassionate police office

When there is a ‘criminal crisis’ and an arrest is made then the criminal is taken down to custody, stripped of belongings, searched and put in a cell. When there is a mental health crisis and the police detain the patient under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act then the patient may be taken down to custody, stripped of belongings, searched and put in a cell. Do not assume that this happens only to patients who are violent. I was taken to a police cell at the age of 19, frail from my eating disorder, hopeless, suicidal and painfully shy. I was a risk to myself, not to anyone else. Most criminals are held in a cell for a maximum of 24 hours, this can become 36 hours in serious cases. A mental health patient can be held in a cell for 72 hours.

Inpatient can feel like prison, some even look like a prison! A sentence I often hear from other people is, “What are you in for?” just like you hear on TV series set in prison. What am I in for? I’m in for an illness that is not my fault, or anyone’s fault!

Criminalising mental illness comes down to stigma and lack of understanding. The language our society uses does not help, for example ‘committed suicide’. People commit fraud, murder, theft but people do not commit suicide because it is not a crime and it hasn’t been a crime for a very long time. People die from suicide.

Mental illness is criminalised but I don’t think it is done deliberately. It’s just another habit of this society but let’s start changing our language, re-phrasing what we say and put mental illness in the same place as physical illness rather than leaving it in the same place as criminals.


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