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What the Bears’ Brandon Marshall’s Struggles With Mental Illness Teach Us About the Criminal Justice System

Brandon Marshall
Brandon Marshall
Ajmel Quereshi,
Staff Counsel,
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July 7, 2014

In a recent article in ESPN the Magazine, Chicago Bears All-Pro Wide Receiver Brandon Marshall admitted that in 2011 he was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Marshall was diagnosed after being hospitalized following a domestic incident. This was not the first time Mr. Marshall had trouble with the law. Since 2009, Mr. Marshall had been involved in seven other alleged cases of domestic violence. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Borderline Personality Disorder is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships.

Up to this point, Marshall’s story is not unique. Many people struggling with mental illness come into contact with the criminal justice system. For some with support and strong mental health insurance coverage, treatment and recovery are real possibilities. Marshall admits that were it not for an intervention by his agent and assistant, he would have walked away from therapy in 2011 before he was diagnosed.

But for those less fortunate, the story too often ends with prolonged and largely unnecessary correctional control. Here’s why: Our public mental health system is in “disarray,” according to the book “The Shame of Our Prisons: New Evidence.”

Approximately 2.2 million people with serious mental illnesses do not receive treatment. As a result of public hospital closures during the 1980s, our country has fewer than 150,000 beds for patients with serious mental illness. Left with no other place to go and no viable option for treatment, the reality for many of these individuals is that when they commit crimes influenced by mental illness, they are arrested and incarcerated.

This lack of a public mental health system means that prisons and jails often function as de facto treatment centers. Just one example: Chicago’s Cook County jail is the largest provider of mental health services in the country.

It makes sense, then, that a large percentage of people behind bars are struggling with mental illness. Approximately 36.6 percent of prisoners and 43.7 percent of persons in jail report having been diagnosed by a mental health professional with “a depressive disorder, schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or anxiety or another personality disorder,” according to the most recent version of the National Inmate Survey. Compounding the problem is that mental health care in many prisons and jails is, at best, substandard, and, at worst, non-existent.

“The Shame of Our Prisons” argues that “far from serving as therapeutic environments, [prisons and jails] are too often places of trauma and abuse where the strong prey on the vulnerable.” According to a recent article in the New York Times regarding the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, which is currently the subject of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, mental health exams of prisoners are sometimes conducted while prisoners are asleep, and “self-injurious behaviors like cutting are a daily occurrence.”

Since his diagnosis, Mr. Marshall has taken some positive steps. In 2012, he taped a public service announcement for the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder, spoke at the organization’s national conference, founded an organization to educate the public about BPD, and lobbied Congress in favor of legislation that would provide mental health services to children.

The progress Mr. Marshall has made in his life, as well as his efforts to educate the broader public about serious mental illness, are commendable. His story should serve as a reminder, however, that those with means are often better able to avoid the unfortunate reality of receiving mental health “treatment” from a correctional system that is ill equipped to provide it.

To truly treat mental illness, we need to invest the resources necessary to prevent those less fortunate from ensnarement in the criminal justice system in the first place.

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