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Sean Yoes

A recent newspaper report indicates that on any given day dozens of mentally ill men and women in Maryland who should be treated in psychiatric facilities for evaluation and treatment, wind up in jails instead. There they languish for days, weeks or even months with little or no treatment, sometimes at great peril to themselves and others, because the state simply doesn’t have enough beds to accommodate all the people who are being ordered by the courts for evaluation or treatment.

“In Baltimore City, there are two outpatient centers under the University of Maryland System…we have to make sure the services are expanded and the resources are there, because when you don’t have places like that you have situation like what happened in Orlando,” said Delegate Jill Carter, who represents the 41st District of Baltimore City, during First Edition earlier this week. “When you don’t have an ability to get people the treatment they need that’s exactly what you get,” she added.

According to the report, 80 percent of people admitted to mental health facilities are arriving through the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, Maryland’s psychiatric inpatient capacity has plummeted from about 3,000 beds in the 1980’s to about 960 in 2016.

In Baltimore City, the vast majority of people matriculating through various components of the criminal justice system are people of color and poor people. Therefore, the vast majority of people suffering because of the state’s catastrophic lack of psychiatric resources are most likely Black, Brown and poor.

“When you think about the historical context for people of African descent, in the United States and throughout the Diaspora, the idea of dehumanization and systematically oppressing people and them being in a consistent…subjegated experience it helps to put this, understanding what’s happening in Maryland in a specific context,” said Dr. Adanna Johnson-Evans, a licensed psychologist and associate professor of Psychology and director of African and African American Studies at Loyola University. Johnson-Evans was also speaking about the issue on First Edition earlier this week.

“This is not surprising, the trends we’ve seen throughout the United States…people of color have been dehumanized and criminalized in the criminal justice system because of mental health diagnosis,” Johnson-Evans said. “We know that half of people who are currently incarcerated carry a diagnosis. So, when we look at the overwhelming numbers of people of color who are incarcerated, we understand…these are person who more likely than not have not had access to mental health services, who are carrying a diagnosis that may have influenced their behavior. The idea that people are living in dehumanizing conditions on a daily basis, when we talk about poverty and crime and violence and lack of educational and economic and employment resources. The results of that psychologically is dire, is grave,” Johnson-Evans added.

A woman who identified herself as, “Selma,” called into First Edition during the segment on the state’s psychiatric backlog to speak on what she described as her experiences in the mental health and criminal justice systems.

“I can say that I’ve suffered with many of those mental health issues you guys mentioned…bipolar, PTSD, depression,” Selma said. She later invoked the name of an infamous, now shuttered facility for adolescents in identifying the stigma of mental illness in many Black families.  “I’ve been in and out of the jail system, I suffered even worse when I was in there. And I’m 59 years old and I’ve experienced all of this from the age of about 12, when I went to a place called Montrose School for Girls. My mental health issues were known then, I never received treatment for them…a lot of these things that went on with me started in my household,” Selma added. “And as a person of color I believe…a lot of trauma that happens in the household, we were told to sweep stuff under the rug, don’t talk about it. That’s where a lot of that trauma comes from.”

Tragically, there is little doubt Selma’s plight is not uncommon in Baltimore and beyond.

Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on WEAA 88.9.