December 20, 2004

Christmas Thoughts and Schizophrenia

This is a short editorial from this weekend's edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (Florida) that seemed appropriate for the time of year...

When illness is a crime; Predictable results of mental-health crisis

This Christmas season, Castleberry Mejias isn't among the homeless on the streets of Miami.

   His story is not a happy one, though.

   The 54-year-old Mejias is in prison. He was sent there by prosecutors who could find no other way to get Mejias treated for the paranoid schizophrenia that has plagued him during his entire adult life.

   The Miami Herald's Joe Mozingo used the sad case of Mejias in writing about a problem that is much larger than one troubled man who causes trouble.

   "Across Florida, there are at least 25,000 people like Castleberry Mejias -- lives reduced to homelessness and jail by a mental illness that many of them do not understand they have."

   Among those people are many "filthy apparitions sleeping in the shadow, muttering aloud, smoking crack to fight off the disembodied voices in their minds."

   Police officers know them well. Mejias has been jailed 31 times. He was arrested once for trying to set a store on fire because he wanted a cigar to warm his "frozen lung." His most recent arrest came when he threatened to kill a bar owner with a knife he didn't have.

   Although the latter charge was dropped, prosecutors sought to put Mejias in prison for four years, for parole violations. Police officers had frequently taken him to hospitals rather than to jail, but he received only brief treatment. Within hours he would be back on the street.

   Unfortunately, his story is similar to the experiences of thousands of mentally ill people in this state.

   Florida ranks 46th in the nation on per capita spending on mental health, according to the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation. It's no wonder that thousands of mentally ill people are homeless -- except when they're housed in jail.

Source: The Herald Tribune


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