Can Our Mental Health Care System be Healed?

For Mental Health Awareness month, we’re taking the pulse on our nation’s mental health care system.

Global poverty, sex trafficking, slavery, unfair wages, child labor, environmental exploitation—I’m proud to see and support Christians confronting these injustices and more, as an expression of our faith and calling. And yet, I’d also love for more Christians to be aware of a need close to home, affecting many of our own friends and neighbors. In our efforts to meet the needs of people in well-publicized peril, most of us are not hearing a cry for justice within our own mental health system.

Mental illness is often tangled in other overlapping injustices. For example, people living in poverty are at greater risk for mental illness. As one psychologist explained it, “It’s a vicious circle where both poverty seems linked to greater rates of mental illness, and in some cases, certain kinds of mental illness seem linked to a greater likelihood of living in poverty.”

Experts estimate that around 50 percent of people with serious mental illness do not receive treatment.

And that’s not all. Among people with mental illness, 60 to 80 percent are unemployed. For people living with the most severe mental illnesses, unemployment can be as high as 90 percent. About 40 percent of homeless people have some kind of mental health problem.

Nationwide, more than half of people incarcerated in local, state and federal correctional facilities have symptoms of serious mental illness. According to the United States Department of Justice, percentages range from 45 percent of federal prisoners to 56 percent of state prisoners and 64 percent of inmates in local jails. More people with mental illness are housed in Los Angeles County Jail than in any psychiatric hospital in this country.

I don’t simply tally off these facts as numbers. My mother, who has schizophrenia, is part of these statistics. She is not a violent or habitual criminal, but she has spent time in both local jail and federal prison. Many others, like her, are not a threat to society when healthy; they simply failed to receive appropriate mental health intervention before committing crimes. And sadly, going to jail is the only way for many to finally get the care they need, but they never should have ended up there.

How We Got Here

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the mental health care system underwent a massive deinstitutionalization, a well-intentioned plan designed to move people out of hospitals and into local communities. In theory, community-based services would replace the large state-run institutions and provide more flexibility, a more personal touch, and the freedom to engage in society. Unfortunately, local communities largely failed to provide the necessary services for all the people sent their way. They also failed to address the stigma and prejudice regularly aimed at those affected by mental illness.

In more recent decades, families have found themselves stymied by strict privacy laws, legal hurdles to committing a loved one to care, and insurance limitations. Unless someone presents a clear and immediate danger to self or others, no one can compel another person to receive mental health treatment. So when they see a problem approaching, family members are often powerless to intervene. They’re often left out of the circle of care as well. Under current laws, family members—even spouses and parents of adult children—cannot gain access to medical information without the written consent of the person under treatment. In some states, parents must obtain written consent from children starting at age 12. Anyone who has tried to care for a loved one in a mental health crisis knows how hard it can be to obtain this written consent.

More people with mental illness are housed in Los Angeles County Jail than in any psychiatric hospital in this country.

On top of these challenges, the mental health care system is difficult to navigate and expensive to access. Insurance companies are reluctant to pay for adequate care. Many psychiatric medications are terribly expensive. And our society perpetuates a stigma attached to mental illness, which keeps people from acknowledging mental health problems. Because of these and other reasons, experts estimate that around 50 percent of people with serious mental illness do not receive treatment. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Without treatment the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives; The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than 100 billion dollars each year in the United States.” We all pay the price for our neglect.

A Call to the Church

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The situation is staggering—but the church is well-positioned to offer both hope and help. We can advocate for better mental health services. We can support legislation for better funding and insurance coverage. We can get educated and address our own fears and questions so we can reach out to others rather than pretend we don’t see them. We can support people affected by mental illness in the same practical ways we support other people with health problems. We can extend our hands in friendship and address the spiritual questions mental illness raises. We can acknowledge Mental Health Awareness Month every May—and its core importance every day—by simply talking about this topic we haven’t historically discussed. We can research the gaps in our local communities and make plans to fill those gaps in ways we’re qualified to do so.

We have neglected this great need for mental health care for too long. In the eyes of some, this kind of justice work may not be as glamorous as overseas missions, or of fighting human trafficking or playing a role in the end of the orphan crisis. It may be less enjoyable than helping people who always say “thank you.” It may even be less rewarding in the sense that you will not always get to see tangible results. But it is no less important. And it is something every single one of us is called to do. It’s called loving your neighbor.


Steve Cornell


Steve Cornell commented…

The new authority is now a big business combination of biopsychology, pharmacology, medicine and the insurance industry. More objective efforts are needed in working toward a holistic narrative for helping people to understand themselves and their problems. The merging of big business and behavioral research is a slippery and potentially harmful arrangement. Human beings are more complicated than narratives of nurture and nature. Each aspect offers important considerations but neither should be permitted to exclude the other. More importantly, an additional discipline must be invited tothe table.

It might surprise some to know that the discipline of theology offers a wider perspective because it reinforces the fact that God created humans as physical, psychological, social and spiritual beings. Each of these dimensions should be considered in understanding why we do the things we do. Holistic care will not leave out any dimension of human existence.

Steve Cornell

Robertson Megan


Robertson Megan commented…

You got it here: "We can support people affected by mental illness in the same practical ways we support other people with health problems." But the beginning of your article supports the "us vs. them" paradigm. You use the phrase "mental illness", when what your statistics are referring to is a very specific "severe and persistent" mental illness category. I believe that embracing mental health as something that is a part of all of us - not just our "friends and neighbors". (Some people are more healthy than others, but we shouldn't ostrasize people for having more health issues than others.) Family involvement and support is important, but it's also important to be treated with respect by being allowed to keep your (mental) health issues as private as you'd like. If someone struggles with a chronic physical disease, say diabetes, we don't demand that the family have the ability to force them to take insulin. Let's take that next step to de-stigmatize mental health issues.

Oliver Queen


Oliver Queen commented…

It's true that our mental healthcare system has its flaws and it will take some time until things will change in favor of all mentally ill patients. However, when the system fails, why people don't change their insurance plan? With the information provided on people will get an idea of how much their lives can be improved just by changing their insurance provider.

John A. Harris


John A. Harris commented…

There should be more healthcare centers for dealing with mental health issues. There should also be good campaigns for increasing the awareness about mental health. However, for any specific health issue you should go to the best treatment facility. For example, if you need RMT then you should go to U.S. Athletic Training Center which could be accessed online at

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