Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Mentally Ill Are Locked Up: Where Are The Psychiatrists?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 17, 2013,0,1637257.column

Today’s LA Times sheds light on the tragic situation in LA County, where the mentally ill are warehoused in the county jail. “3,200 people with a mental illness are behind bars (17% of the jail population),” Steve Lopez reports. Where are the psychiatrists in this discussion? We could ban together to talk about the need to rebuild our mental hospitals; the ones closed when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California. It is not clear to me why psychiatrists are not more involved in advocating for the mentally ill. The resources, in California, are so limited, and yet, what seems like a few years ago (30 or so), we had decent long-term psychiatric hospitals, such as Camarillo State Hospital, which gave the mentally ill a therapeutic community. We need to chime into this conversation so that we can remind the public that the brain influences behavior, and as such, treating brain disease, not just with medication, is a critical component to a civilized society. We need good systems of care which help people who cannot help themselves. Steve Lopez does a huge public service by bringing this to the media. Now, psychiatrists need to join him, by letting the public know that we care too.

4 Responses to “Mentally Ill Are Locked Up: Where Are The Psychiatrists?”

  1. Jon said

    When I opened today’s newspaper, I predicted there would be this post today. This sad story needs to be told, and to add to the sadness, needs to be retold, multiple times. This is not new news, but it does need to be made news again and again, until it is no longer true. Quoting from the article, “Sheriff Lee Baca has said for decades that he runs the nation’s largest mental hospital, but we’ve heard it so often that the shock has worn off. We know there’s something inexcusably wrong with the system — something backward and inhumane.” May enough voices be raised in resonance to change this. Shirah, your comments only help in this sad problem.

  2. Shelly said

    I agree with you. On the other hand, how many of your colleagues would band together to treat all the mentally ill in the county lockdowns? Very few, I think. I know that you are different than any other psychiatrist out there and that you DO really care, but you are in the minority. There is nothing fancy or glorious about working with the mentally ill in jail. You can’t save them all. Where do you start?

    • Psychiatrists seek different practice environments, so I see your point, but at the same time, we do share a common interest and understanding of mental illness, such that even if we choose not to work with this population, that does not mean that we do not want to advocate for the most appropriate treatment. Our advocacy in LA County seems to be lacking. This issue baffles me, as I can’t believe that we, as a profession, are that split off from the mental suffering of so many of the inmates in our local jail. Steve Lopez consistently brings their suffering to our attention and I applaud him for that. He rarely quotes the opinion of a psychiatrist, so I am not sure if that is because there is no psychiatrist thinking about these issues, or he is not in touch with people in my profession. Thanks.

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