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Q&A with Detroit Free Press Columnist Jeff Gerritt: Jails As the New Mental Hospitals

Q&A with Detroit Free Press Columnist Jeff Gerritt: Jails As the New Mental Hospitals

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prison health, reporting on health, mental illness

A recent Detroit Free Press column illustrates what happens when you cut mental health services in a community: jails become the new mental hospitals. Unsurprisingly, they're not very good ones.

The column, by Free Press columnist and editorial writer Jeff Gerritt, was noteworthy for the way it put the increasing incarceration of mentally ill people in historical context and tied the phenomenon directly to budget cuts. Here's how Gerritt started out:

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon spoke for most sheriffs when he said, during a community meeting earlier this year, that his jail had become his county's largest mental health care institution.

Over the last two decades, changes in state policy and big cuts in funding for community mental health care have pushed hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people into county jails and state prisons

Community mental health agencies - which were supposed to take up the slack but never received the resources to do so - face continuing budget cuts. The state has resumed warehousing its mentally ill - this time behind bars.

Gerritt talked with me today about how he reported the column, and his insights are useful for anyone who's considering exploring similar issues in their own communities. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Next week, I'll offer some tips on how to track mental health funding in your area and assess how people are affected.

How did you come to write about this issue, and why now?

I write a lot about prison issues, urban affairs and criminal justice - it's a natural evolution of covering a beat and knowing what the trends are. There were a couple of community meetings (on mental health services) this past summer and I heard a sheriff say how his jail is the biggest mental health institution in the county, which every sheriff in every county could say.

The bargain 15 years ago was, "we're going to close these psychiatric hospitals but invest more in community (mental health) services." That never happened, but in the past three to four  years, it's gotten even worse. In Wayne County and Detroit, there have been millions of dollars in cuts over past few years. With these budget cuts it's brought the problem to a head. Everyone knows this has been going on for years, but I wanted to help people understand how we got to this point.

You profile a number of people with mental health problems who have been incarcerated. How did you find them?

I've got a good relationship with all these community-based nonprofit agencies in the city. I decided to focus on Detroit Central City Community Mental Health. I asked them about who they were serving and told them I wanted (to interview) a client who'd just gotten out of prison and someone who'd been out for a long time. They gave me names and backgrounds. I talked to twice the number of people I ended up using. I did follow-ups and went to their houses. Regarding the woman who had the son in prison: I was talking to her as an employee and she mentioned she had a son going through this. I just bumped into that story.

What advice do you have for journalists interested in covering the impact of mental health budget cuts in their own communities?

You've got to get out there. You can't just sit in your office and try to do this stuff online. It takes months, even years (to develop relationships). I just don't go in when there's a negative story. I write positive stuff so they (social service agencies) know me. Certainly in the prison system, I don't go through the agencies anymore because I know so many inmates.

Find an agency that serves a lot of people - just ask "what do you do?" and write a story about what they're doing. They know you're not just going to be knocking on their door when there's something negative going on.

What surprised you in reporting this column?

I guess I've been covering (prison issues) so long that I can't say much really surprised me. I know there's 25 percent of the prison population that's mentally ill and they're not getting much treatment.

One thing that did surprise me was the response I got in this piece. People often don't care (about problems in the prison system).  But a lot of people have family members or know people who are mentally ill. I got hundreds of calls and emails and a lot of letters to the editor. The amount of positive response surprised me - there was much more sympathy.

Next week: Tips for reporting on the impact of budget cuts on mental health in your community

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U.S. children and teens have struggled with increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior for much of the past decade. Join us as we explore the systemic causes and policy failures that have accelerated the crisis and its inequitable impact, as well as promising community-driven approaches and evidence-based practices. The webinar will provide fresh ideas for reporting on the mental health of youth and investigating the systems and services. Sign-up here!

The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors and a social media consultant to join its team. Learn more about the positions and apply.


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