Our Indifference Is Killing People With Mental Illness

03/10/2015 02:41 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

On March 10, 2015, police responded to an Atlanta apartment complex after receiving a call that a man was "acting deranged, knocking on doors and crawling around naked." According to CNN, the police said that the man charged them and after warning him to stop, they shot and killed him. The Atlanta Police's public safety officer dutifully noted, "I can only reasonably assume that if he was running around the apartment complex naked, I believe we can make the assumption there may have been some mental health experience that he might have been having."

In other words, the guy was "crazy," what do you expect us to do?

That resigned attitude towards people experiencing a mental health crisis has dire consequences. Dismissing, ignoring and belittling those with mental illness leads to an underfunded mental health system, and leaves police, jails and prisons to poorly pick up the slack.

I'm willing to bet we're all guilty of this. You're walking around your city and see you a man talking to himself. He's dirty, obviously lives on the streets. You decide to cross to the other side because you think, "that dude's crazy." You look back at him and now he's yelling, maybe getting in people's faces as they walk by. You call the cops, because what else are you supposed to do? They show up. "Good," you think. "The cops will know how to deal with that crazy person."

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 56 percent of incarcerated individuals in state prison and 64 percent of those in local jails have symptoms of, or a recent history of, a mental health issue. There are 10 times more people with mental illness in jails and prisons than are in psychiatric hospitals.

What if I told you there were ten times more people with cancer being treated in prisons than in hospitals? Or diabetes? Or heart disease? And that when they were released, their treatment ended, prescriptions stopped, and people were more or less left on their own, many returning to homelessness. You might even call a system like that "crazy."

People with mental illness may ostensibly be arrested for harassment or public urination or drug possession, but that's not really why he or she is in jail. It's because when you and I see small crimes like that committed, all we see is an offense. If we viewed those actions as symptoms, instead of crimes, our response would be therapeutic not punitive. If a man were lying on the ground having a heart attack, we wouldn't want him arrested for trespassing, we'd want him to have help.

Better training for police forces can reduce deadly outcomes, as San Antonio has shown. New York City announced a massive $130 million investment in mental health treatment. In Seattle, the AVID Jail Project has been launched to monitor conditions inside jails and provide resources to inmates with mental health issues. Salt Lake City and even Los Angeles, have announced or implemented new programs aimed at tackling the intertwining problems of homelessness, the criminal justice system and mental illness or substance abuse. We need to monitor these innovations, study their effectiveness, and build on what we learn.

Yet, new and expanded programs are not enough on their own. We, as a society, are quick to dismiss and disparage the people we see on the street who are clearly experiencing mental health symptoms or crises. We call those people "crazy" and "wacko," making it all too easy to ignore their arrests and forget about their incarcerations. We have to fundamentally change our view. The next time you run across someone having a mental health crisis on the street, think to yourself: if this person were having a heart attack, would you want them arrested?