Bestselling Author Discusses Criminalization of Mental Illness Through Personal Lens
December 16, 2010
By Brandon Curl
Nationally acclaimed investigative journalist, bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Pete Earley spoke to policy makers and advocates at events hosted by the Hogg Foundation at the Texas capitol on September 21.
Earley, a former reporter for The Washington Post and an author of several novels, wrote “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.” The book investigates the criminalization of people with mental illness and was inspired by his own son’s experiences.
Speaking to legislative staff at a luncheon and to more than 150 people at an afternoon public forum, Earley interwove stories of his son’s experience, his observations of the Miami criminal justice system’s treatment of people with mental illness, and his policy prescriptions for Texas and the nation.
He also rattled off statistics that encapsulate the problem. “Right now, as we’re talking, you’ve got 365,000 people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression in jails and prison,” noted Earley. “You’ve got a half-million on probation, you’ve got a million going through the criminal justice system every year, and the largest public mental facility is not a hospital; it’s the Los Angeles County Jail.”
Earley was eager to talk to policy aides and the public in a state that is 49th in the country in per capita spending on treating mental illness.
“I was thrilled to be invited to the Texas capitol because it gave me an opportunity to talk to legislative aides about the importance of keeping mental health funding in place,” said Earley. “We all know there is a recession going on and no new money for programs, which is why it is important for us to spend the money that already is allocated more wisely.”
“Rather than wasting it on keeping persons with mental disorders in prisons and jails, which are expensive and don’t help people get better, we can spend it on mental health courts and jail diversion programs that get ill persons into treatment,” he added.
Earley spoke about how his own son eventually found help at a treatment center where a case manager helped him find a psychiatrist and get on medication and into a group home. Earley’s son now works as a peer support specialist after completing training to assist others with mental illness.
Introducing Earley at the event was Dr. Octavio N. Martinez, Jr., executive director for the Hogg Foundation, an organization Earley lauded for its efforts on behalf of people with mental illness. “I am so glad that I came to Austin and that the Hogg Foundation was able to not only draw legislative aides, but also reach the community through well-attended events, spots on local television, and newspaper interviews.”
Colleen Horton, program officer for the Hogg Foundation, was pleased with the event’s effectiveness. “Mr. Earley’s visit to Texas was a success in that he was able to make real for the audiences the challenges faced by people experiencing mental illness and the consequences of inadequate mental health funding,” said Horton.
After the talk, Earley took questions from the audience and spoke candidly with attendees. “Being able to speak later to folks from the community really gave me a double opportunity to not only talk about reforms that I’ve seen elsewhere but to learn about significant programs being implemented in Texas,” said Earley. “Programs such as crisis intervention training, jail diversion, drop-off centers, mental health courts and other creative ideas are helping persons who are ill get meaningful treatment rather than wasting away in jails and prisons.”
Earley expressed thanks for the unique opportunity to advocate for those with mental illness. “All of us who have family members with mental disorders want reforms, but few of us get to talk to legislative aides in a group like I did,” said Earley. “It was a real opportunity to put a face on mental health and to talk about how we can spend our tax dollars more wisely.”
Texas Tribune reporter Brandi Grissom interviewed Pete Earley during his visit to Austin. Listen to the interview and read her in-depth story on criminal justice and mental health online. Go to www.texastribune.org and search the archives for “Pete Earley.”