The Invisibility of the Mentally Ill

The mentally ill have beome more invisible in the United States due to deinstitutionalism and their own desire to be invisible. Furthermore, there is a strong link between the criminal justice system and those sent to state psych hospitals: 92 percent of California’s psych patients got there via the criminal justice system. [1]

“Between 1998 and 2005, the number of the mentally ill behind bars more than quadrupled; the share of mentally ill people among the incarcerated was five times higher than in the general population.” [2]

Mental illness appears to be a factor in so many arrest-related deaths that the U.S. Department of Justice has considered adding mental status to the national database of such deaths. [3]

The decline in those in U.S. mental institutions has been dramatic: in the 1950s, more than a half million people lived in a mental institution, but by the 1970s, only 160,000 did, due to the efforts of psychiatrists, philanthrapists and politicians to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. Today, there’s one psychiatric bed per 7,100 Americans. Broadly speaking, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, the term “mentally ill” could be applied to a whopping quarter of the U.S. adult population in any given year, because it includes everything from depression to attention deficit disorder. [4]

Funding for the care of the mentally ill is shrinking, as by 1985, the federal government covered just 11 percent of mental-health agency budgets. Collectively, states have cut $4.35 billion in mental-health spending since 2009. [5]

Besides the great decline in institutional care and funding for those with a mental illness, what many people with mental illness fear most is not the illness itself but its discovery. “Given the fear and discrimination that people with mental illness face all the time, in all aspects of life, there is little incentive for the undiscovered to trade the one protection they do have — invisibility — for some theoretical rights to be enforced in a future that seems less likely to occur if no one knows they are mentally ill.” [6]


[1] Mac McClelland, “Schizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin,” Mother Jones, May/June 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mariam Markowitz, “Madness in the Method,” The Nation,  April 22, 2013.