because the criminalization of mental illness is too important to get the facts wrong. The fact is that far too many mentally ill people were being “warehoused” in mental institutions. Many of the institutions weren’t much better than jails and some were worse. In fact, conditions were so bad that some of the institutions were described as “snakepits.” But “the pendulum always swings too far.” When deinstitutionalization began there were 600,000 psychiatric beds. Today, there are approximately 60,000.
President Reagan shouldn’t get all the blame for emptying the hospitals. Deinstitutionalization began in the late 1950s with the advent of psychotropic medications and continues today. Reagan was, however, responsible for the significant increase in the number of homeless, mentally ill people in the early 1980s. One of his first acts as president was to repeal the Mental Health Act. The legislation, adopted in the last months of the Carter administration, would have increased funding for mental health treatment and services. It would also have significantly improved planning on the state level and federal levels. Reagan’s administration is also responsible for slashing funding for mental health and housing, also with predictable results. The number of homeless, mentally ill people on the streets significantly increased.
Today, the criminalization of mental illness goes hand-in-hand with the criminalization of homelessness. It does not have to be this way. More than half a century ago, the U.S. put a man on the moon. We can–and must–marshal the ingenuity, energy, and vision to fund and fix the mental health system. At the same time, we must ensure that people, especially those with mental disabilities, have access to decent, safe, affordable housing.
And those are the facts.