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The New Asylums: Hard Look at the Truth

Updated on November 23, 2010

Documentary Review


“The New Asylums” was a PBS Frontline documentary whose producers argued that prisons are the new mental health facilities.  Filmed in 2005, it focused on an Ohio prison as a model for mental health in prison systems.  The goal of the documentary was to answer the question of why prisons are the new mental health providers because there are 500,000 people with mental illness in prisons, as compared to only one-fifth that number being helped in Psychiatric hospitals.    This documentary showed prisons provide needed mental health services more than if the prisoners were not there, but also emphasized that prisons are a very difficult setting in which to provide the services, and creates a cycle of recidivism for people with mental health issues.  The film included footage of prisoners during mental health crisis, interviews with prisoners, guards and mental health professionals, and also included statistics and a general view of what happens to prisoners after they are released. 

            I chose this documentary because I currently work in the mental health field.  I was interested to see how the documentary portrayed the illness and the legality surrounding it because I deal with it on a daily basis.  I am aware that most media portrayals of Schizophrenia are rarely accurate and the general public has little knowledge and plenty of fear about this population.  Even with a degree in psychology I had my own fear of people with schizophrenia because of their bizarre behavior, which I found most of which was not dangerous.  I challenged my fears and got to know and help them, and it definitely opened my eyes and impacted my views.  The main issue with severe mental illness is that people with it express themselves differently than others and they are easily misunderstood.  I admire their courage because they have more challenges from day to day than we could even imagine.  Imagine hearing voices continuously throughout the day telling you to hurt yourself, to hurt others, that you’ve killed people, that people hate you and want to kill you, and you can not even tell what is real.  The only ways to really get help is to take medication to minimize the symptoms such as voices, and to ignore what you can, and learn to live with them or distract yourself from them.  On top of that, stress in their lives increases voices and paranoia, and this group is often left without family or social support, are left homeless, and as in the documentary in jail. 

            I was impressed with the accuracy with which this film portrayed people with severe mental illness.  They filmed the inmates during times of crisis as they were having a total breakdown because they had not taken their medication.  They also interviewed the same inmates when they were back on their medication and functional.  The film emphasized the importance of anyone with mental illness to have medication and social support and how different their lives are in two different settings.  It explained how they usually come in with minor charges, but because of their inappropriate behavior usually slip through the system until they are in maximum security prison psych ward or in segregation.  It showed that the behaviors are usually caused by their symptoms such as hearing voices or having delusions and that is why they act out.  It was stated that in prison if they disobey a guard they are punished and placed in segregation where they often get worse and become suicidal.  A mental health professional interviewed in the film explained that in a mental hospital, if a patient disobeys, counselors would recognize it as acting out from symptoms, and would help them instead of punish them.  It was heartbreaking and I was on the verge of tears when in the film they brought in a what looked like fully armed swat team to gain control of a prisoner.  Something like that would be extremely traumatic for someone who is already extremely paranoid and thinks people are trying to kill them. 

            In the film they discussed the fact that prisoners are released with a little cash and only 2 weeks worth of medication and no place to go.  It explained that it actually takes them on average 3 months to find a doctor and get more medication.  They usually end up off their medication, homeless, act out and end back up in prison.   People get released in the middle of the night with barely any possessions or resources.  One of the guards in the film said that prison is not the place that people should be getting treatment, and I agree for the most part, aside from violent offenders.  The film mentioned that more alternatives are needed but failed to explore them.  They did use psychiatric hospitals as an alternative, but did not mention community based services.  Community support programs and group homes help people get health care, medicine, housing, and help them budget their money.  I think if there were more of them in every city they may see less recidivism.  On average, it costs taxpayers at least 4 times more money for someone to stay in a Psychiatric hospital as compared to a group home.  The film should have explained more about community based programs.   Despite that, I think the film could open people’s eyes to this social problem that is rarely addressed. 




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