A Response to the Free Press on Deinstitutionalization
I seem to have done a number of long, discursive posts lately. Here's another.
My local big-city paper, the Detroit Free Press, has done a great series of articles over the past several months regarding the lack of services for people with mental illness in Michigan. The series is a good example of what quality, in-depth journalism can be. But in an editorial last Sunday, the paper took a wrong turn. Among some other proposals that are quite valuable, that editorial argues that the state should “put a moratorium on closing psychiatric beds” and “should seriously consider adding some” at the state’s psychiatric hospitals.
That argument reflects the view that deinstitutionalization was the cause of the problems in the mental health system, and that stopping or reversing deinstitutionalization will help solve those problems. That view is widely held. But it is wrong. In my recent Cardozo Law Review article, I showed that where deinstitutionalization has not fully achieved its goals, that is not because psychiatric hospitals are a particularly good setting for serving people with mental illness. Rather, it is because states have too often seen deinstitutionalization as largely an opportunity to save money. They have closed institutions, but they have not sufficiently invested in the services and supports that enable people with mental illness to flourish in their homes and communities.
As the Free Press's own reporting shows, Michigan has replicated this pattern. An article on September 16 observed that despite the heavy burden that deinstitutionalization placed on community mental health services, the money for those services “never materialized. In fact, mental health spending failed to keep pace even with inflation.”
To respond to the failure to fund community-based services by choosing reinstitutionalization could make sense only if people with mental illness were better served in psychiatric hospitals than in their homes and communities. But we know that the opposite is true. Over the past four decades, a robust evidence base has demonstrated that people with mental illness are more likely to thrive when they receive appropriate services and supports in the community than when they are institutionalized. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has concluded that independence and participation in society, as well as community relationships and social networks, are essential to mental health recovery.
The evidence has also identified the services and supports that people with mental illness need to thrive in the community. These include: supportive housing, which provides stable and permanent housing to people with mental illness in their own apartments, with services coming to them as needed; intensive and coordinated clinical services, such as those provided by multimember, multidisciplinary Assertive Community Treatment teams; and community-based crisis services, which respond to mental health crises, defuse them, and address their causes without triggering prolonged institutionalization. All of these services exist in Michigan, and many people with mental illness in the state are flourishing outside of psychiatric hospitals because of them. But the state has failed to make sufficient investments in these community-based services. The Free Press's reporting has shown us the results.
More than anything else, it is the state’s failure to provide appropriate community-based housing that has led to the problems of homelessness and incarceration that the Free Press's reporting identified. In its most recent “Grading the States” report, for example, the National Association for Mental Illness rated Michigan below average in providing housing for people with mental illness.
The solution to this problem is not to reinstitutionalize people with mental illness. Reinstitutionalization is more costly, and less effective, than providing services in the community. And it will likely violate the ADA, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the Olmstead decision. The U.S. Department of Justice has been aggressively enforcing the Olmstead community-integration mandate in recent years. (As all three of my readers know, I played some role in this effort before I left my DOJ appointment and returned to my teaching job a year and a half ago.) Reinstitutionalizing people with mental illness could tie up the state in lengthy and expensive investigations and, potentially, litigation with the DOJ and private advocacy groups.
Michigan should not go down that path. Instead, it should—finally—make sufficient investments in integrated supported housing and other community-based services so that Michiganders with mental illness do not have to live on the streets or in a jail or prison.