08/26/2010 09:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Court rules gassing mentally ill is illegal. Is this the best we can do?

Psychiatric Times reported an appelate court decision: "Chemical Gassing of Mentally Ill Inmates is Unconsitutional":

A Federal appeals court has supported an earlier ruling by a lower court that established the unconstitutionality of gassing disruptive mentally ill inmates in their cells. While the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and other chemical agents on inmates is legal in Florida, this manner of force is prohibited against those whose psychiatric disorders preclude them from conforming to behavior otherwise expected from the mainstream prison population.

Is this the best we can do for people with serious mental illness? Stop gassing them? One would've hoped it wouldn't require a court decision to stop gassing those with mental illness, but this being America, those with serious mental illness are last in line for everything. If a society is to be judged by how well it treats the most needy, we fail.

How bad is it?

Jails hold more people with mental illness than hospitals according to a report by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and the National Sheriff's Association. Dora B. Schriro, Commissioner of New York City's Department of Correction, confirms this,"More than half of New York City inmates have a high concentration of mental illness." As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal, having a diagnosis of mental illness often means you stay in jaill longer than other people convicted of the exact same crime.

Here are some other headlines about people with mental illness from just the past week. The point of these stories is not to 'scare', instill 'fear', or 'stigmatize'. It is to point out that there are people with serious mental illness who without treatment are likely to become violent to themselves or others. For these individuals, as a kind and compassionate society, we should be providing treatment-court ordered if needed-to ensure they don't spend the rest of their lives incarcerated:

  • Heidelberg Twp., PA: Mentally Ill woman pleads guilty of setting her home on fire.
  • Allegheny County, Maryland: A person with a history of mental illness is charged with murdering his brother with an ax.
  • Dallas, TX Parents fear state will free a teen with mental illness who cut a foot off a corpse.
  • East Hartford, CT: A mentally ill man was sentenced to 17 years in Jail in after a rampage.
  • Portland, ME: A suspect in a murder has a long history of mental illness
  • In Hamburg, NY: A judge decided a trucker who killed a co-worker was not legally responsible because he was mentally ill. i
  • Huntsville, AL - A 15 year old charged with the murde of 14-year-old classmate will be moved to a state mental hospital Thursday.
  • Montana: A mentally ill man accused of shooting and killing his landlord was found not guilty because of mental illness.
  • Oregon: Milwaukie mother asks help in finding depressed Canby man believed to have recently attempted to purchase a handgun.
  • In Burlingame, CA: A woman's call to police for help in dealing with her mentally ill son ended with officers shooting the man to death.
  • Continuing reporting on these recent cases will most likely reveal these individuals had a history of serious mental illness and were allowed to go untreated by mental health departments who looked the other way and spent their money on the worried-well instead of the seriously ill. Verdicts will likely send most of them to jail,

    At least, as a result of the court's decision, they won't be gassed.

    It's a small step. Too small.