CALIFORNIANS living with mental illness must confront not only a significant and lingering societal stigma, but also may face substantial health care disparities in mental health care access, and therefore proper diagnosis, treatment and management of their mental health conditions.
Individuals living with severe mental illness have a life expectancy that is, on average, 25 years less than those without mental illness.
The lack of available care disproportionately contributes to premature death among those suffering from mental illnesses. Mentally ill patients die from other medical conditions or diseases at a rate that is 1.5 to 3 times greater than the general population.
Despite this increase in prevalence, mentally ill patients are also less likely to receive treatment for their medical conditions.
As is unfortunately the case with most societal inequality, the impact of health care disparities is greatest within minority communities, low-income patients, and particularly those released after prolonged incarceration.
The prevalence of mental illness is particularly high within the incarcerated population as 55 percent of California inmates report a recent history or current symptoms of mental illness.
Contrary to the notion that incarceration "corrects" or "rehabilitates" criminal behavior, what it does do is disconnect inmates from family and other support systems. Following their release, many inmates do not access outpatient mental health clinics and those who do may wait for months to gain access to these outpatient programs and medications they need.
Providing adequate access to care is both humane and cost effective.
Every Californian, even those not touched directly by mental illness, will feel the adverse effects, either directly or indirectly, from undertreated mental illness, particularly in vulnerable California communities.
A failure to provide adequate access to mental health care to underserved communities such as recent ex-prisoners means that California taxpayers will ultimately pay the increased costs of additional future medical care, costs associated with unstable mental illness, and costs associated with recidivism. Incarceration without resources that foster community reintegration renders the entire correctional system ineffective and wastes more than $10 billion dollars the state prison system costs the California taxpayer annually.
Part of the solution to undertreated mental health patients in vulnerable communities is heightened awareness. Numerous advocacy groups are currently working hard in California to create an understanding of the challenges facing the mentally ill, and to ensure that formerly incarcerated patients continue to receive care.
Communication between agencies is imperative as well. All California communities should adopt measures to ensure that mental illness patients have access to transitional living options and medical/mental health services they need.
Current continuity of care regulations should be enforced for all mentally ill Californians, especially for inmates, to maximize both continuity of medical and mental health care and potential for successful reintegration as productive members of society.
By bridging disparities in care, Californians can claim to be taking care of the mental health challenges and needs that exist.