Mental Health Services Must Start Before the Department of Corrections - Yes on 2

Guest Post By Meredith Conklin


When I began my career in corrections, I naively believed it would mostly involve providing guidance and pep talks (for lack of a better term) to people who had somehow fallen into a path of poor decisions and selfish criminal thinking. I had no idea the magnitude of complicated problems I would face in front of me. One in particular being that we are tasked with crisis management for people with severe mental illness.

Untreated mental illnesses should not fall to corrections. But it ends up there, simply by default. Correctional staff are not psychologists or doctors. We simply make referrals to the resources available, hoping they make it. And far too often, they don’t.

It happens like falling dominoes. Without adequate recognition and care at the onset of mental illness, people are left to their own devices. They are often unable to work, creating inherent food and housing challenges. The system in place to address homelessness includes communal living in non-profit, often religious environments with others who have struggled to make it in the world for any number of reasons. So it becomes difficult to maintain residence for any length of time, because in order to live in these places, one must get along and play well with others. Depending on the illness, this can be difficult, if not impossible. So what happens? They act out in their community. Maybe they wander the street shouting obscenities, or maybe they verbally and/or physically assault someone in response to a perceived threat. Maybe their delusions have convinced them that the helpers are the enemy, and no one can be trusted. The police are called.

I’m not familiar enough with the circumstances of Ky Johnson to discuss his case specifically. It’s clear he had a weapon, and was indeed a public safety threat by the time this event occurred. It’s also clear that his family believed he was in the midst of untreated mental illness, and perhaps that was a contributing factor in his crime.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there had been intervention prior to that awful day? If accessible outpatient and inpatient services were available, and if a call was made to a social worker first, maybe even years before it became a crisis, would we have arrived at the same outcome? It’s hard to know for sure, but I would venture to say probably not. It is my hope that these horrible consequences do not continue to repeat themselves over and over, as they have throughout my career. It is evident to me that funding for treatment, medication, and appropriate housing would make a huge difference in the lives of those who end up in the criminal justice system by way of mental illness. We do not have to repeat ourselves here. We can be different. We can be better.

Meredith is a criminal justice professional in the Kansas City Metro.

Medicaid Expansion (on the ballot as Amendment 2 on Aug. 4 in Missouri) would dramatically dramatically increase mental health access to thousands of Missourians. Please vote YES!

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