THE BLOG

People With Mental Illness Should Get What They Deserve

03/19/2015 12:37 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

And what they -- and their families -- deserve is help and hope.

You're sitting in your family doctor's office with your child, waiting. Your child fidgets, trying not to bite his fingernails. Your stomach is tight with worry, and you can't meet each other's eyes.

"Do you think it's serious?" your baby finally asks. "I'm trying, Mom. I'm really trying."

The door opens. Instead of the expected reassuring doctor in a white coat, you see a police officer, holding out a pair of shiny steel handcuffs.

"I'm sorry to tell you this," the police officer says. "But your child has leukemia. We are going to need to take him into custody."

What if we treated cancer like we treat serious mental illness?

Like many people who become mental health advocates, I arrived in this role entirely by accident. When my second son's increasingly erratic and even dangerous behavior was finally diagnosed as bipolar disorder, he had already been in juvenile detention four times, and he had three stays in an acute care mental hospital. He was only 13 years old.

I did not know how to help him then. But I did know one thing for sure: my son was not a bad kid. He had behavioral symptoms of a brain disorder that had been with him since birth.

As a result of those behavioral symptoms, my son and many other children are sent to jail.

As I fought for justice for my own child, I learned that we were not alone in our struggle. All across America, children and adults with serious mental illness were being sent to jail because of their illness.

What if we treated cancer like we treat serious mental illness?

Treated, my son is just like anyone else. And yet when a child who brought a gun to school in Montana was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated, he was denied re-entry to the public education system. This child is likely to join hundreds of thousands of other children with serious emotional disturbance diagnoses who have ended up in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Do you think that 12-year olds who may have serious mental illness should be tried as adults instead of receiving treatment? That could be what is happening right now in Wisconsin with the Slenderman case.

Do you think that people who clearly committed their "crimes" while in the throes of psychosis should be executed? In our society, we've practically made that an expectation.

The way we "manage" serious mental illness is both expensive and immoral. So why do we keep sending sick people to jail instead of providing them with life-changing treatment?

I've come to an uncomfortable conclusion about how our society continues to ignore the obvious problem of serious mental illness. At some level, the fact is that we think people with serious mental illness deserve to go to jail. We tell ourselves that they deserve solitary confinement. They deserve homelessness. They deserve to be shot and killed by police. And because they are getting what we think they "deserve," it's okay for us to turn away, to blame the very people we should be helping.

I can't help but come to this conclusion as states everywhere (including mine) slash their mental healthcare budgets and services while leaving law enforcement and the criminal justice system to clean up the awful mess.

How do you stigmatize a medical condition? Make it a crime.

I'm ashamed--not of my son and the millions of people like him who are courageously living the best lives they can despite significant challenges. I'm ashamed of the rest of us, who tell ourselves that "those people" got what they deserved. We don't want those "weird kids" in our children's classrooms. We don't accept that with the right supports, people can manage their diagnoses and live successful, productive lives in their communities. For those who cannot meet this worthy goal because their illness is too severe, we do not provide quality medical care, preferring instead the cold, harsh reality of a jail cell and solitary confinement.

At some level, we are all accountable for our failure to extend compassion and care to the sickest among us. We are all Adam Lanza's mother, unable to acknowledge that our sons and daughters need help, not blame and castigation.

To everyone reading this who would send a sick child to jail: shame on you,

To everyone reading this who thinks that people with mental illness who are shot and killed by police officers got what they deserved: shame on you.

To everyone reading this who lives in fear and ignorance of your brave friends and neighbors battling to live a "normal" life: shame on you.

We can do better. We must do better. Our children are depending on us as a society to provide treatment before tragedy. People with mental illness should finally get what they deserve: compassion, admiration, support, and hope.