Editor’s note: “Look Back” is a series designed to highlight articles from the Good Faith Media archives that remain relevant or historically interesting. If you have an article from our archives that you’d like us to consider including in this series, please email your suggestion to submissions@goodfaithmedia.org. A version of this article first appeared at EthicsDaily.com April 15, 2014. At the time of publication, Parham was the executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. A series of articles published during the week of May 17-21, 2021, focused on mental health is available here.

Prisons are the largest providers of mental health.

Cliff Vaughn and I heard that narrative in Indiana and Tennessee while producing “Through the Door.”

We first encountered it when we interviewed Rich Larsen, public information officer at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Indiana.

“Prisons make up the biggest mental health facilities in the country,” he said. “And it seems to be a growing problem.”

Larsen said, “In Indiana, many years ago, many state hospitals had to close. Here at Wabash, we found that at one point our segregation unit was filled predominately with mental health individuals.”

William Gupton, assistant commissioner of rehabilitative services for the Tennessee Department of Correction, had a parallel message.

“In 1985, the sad truth to this system is that there were 850,000 mental health inpatient beds around the country. To this day, we only have about 40,000 to 50,000 of those beds left,” he said. “These folks are going somewhere. And a lot of them are showing up at our county jails and definitely in our prison system.”

Interviewing him inside the Tennessee Prison for Women, he said, “We see that with our women. About 50% of these women here are on psychotropic medication.”

A new report from the Treatment Advocacy Center underscored the dynamic of prisons and mental health, a reality largely under-recognized in the American public.

“The number of individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails now exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold,” the report reads.

“In 2012, there were estimated to be 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in prisons and jails. There were also approximately 35,000 patients with severe mental illness in state psychiatric hospitals. Thus, the number of mentally ill persons in prisons and jails was 10 times the number remaining in state hospitals,” it said.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in April that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said 22 percent of its inmates had mental health problems.

Seeking 101 new positions to address medical and mental health care, the department planned to train all prison staff in the recognition of mental health issues.

Perhaps theologically, we are in a “fullness of time” moment.

As the public is becoming aware of the issue of mental health in prisons, one of America’s most visible pastors is calling on churches to start mental health ministries.

His call came after the suicide of his son, who suffered a lifetime of mental illness.

“There are hundreds of conferences around the world by health professionals, government officials and NGOs which address mental illness from medical, social and policy perspectives, but the Church, with its vast network of volunteers and resources, is rarely included in the discussion,” wrote Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, and his wife, Kay.

“What do churches have to offer to the mentally ill and their families in light of the multi-layered, complex set of issues that surround mental illness? The answer is – a lot! There are biblical, historical and practical reasons that churches must be at the table with this issue,” they wrote.

If churches are at “the table” on mental health for congregants – and the public at large – it’s a short step for churches to take to address the issue of mental health and prisons.

At least one church already recognizes the need to provide a ministry to corrections officials, who are among the most stressed out of all communities in law enforcement.

That’s the unique ministry started by David Valentine, pastor of Covenant Fellowship in Huntsville, Texas, an interviewee in “Through the Door.”

One wonders if other churches near state and federal prisons will consider focused ministries to correction officials as part of a larger emerging conversation on mental health.

And one wonders what churches can do in both the short and long runs to affect constructively the dynamic of prisons and mental health.

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