May Monthly Mosaic: Mental Health and the Drug War

In 1980, there were 40,900 people incarcerated for drug offenses; by 2013, this number increased to 489,000. The vast majority of drug arrests are for possession, leaving the criminal justice system to address substance use and addiction, which it often does inadequately at best. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report issued in 2006, slightly more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, including 705,600 inmates in State prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons, and 479,900 in local jails. This issue of the Monthly Mosaic will address some of the many interconnected relationships between mental illness, treatment, drug use, addiction, and drug policy.
Addiction and mental illness are often comorbid, meaning they exist simultaneously but independently; people who suffer from one or both experiences are frequently either killed by law enforcement, or treated as criminals and funneled into the criminal justice system. Source: Police are often not well trained to handle mental health issues, and as a result, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement. Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 10.14.17 AM Source: The language around drug use and addiction often skews in favor of a criminal justice approach instead of a mental health one. Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 10.14.26 AM Source: Even when people who use drugs are given treatment for mental-health related reasons, that treatment is often not aimed at improving health outcomes. Rather, it is aimed at controlling the patient through heavy medications and involuntary confinement. SSDP alum Santos Mendez argues that this is a direct product of the drug war in a recent blog post detailing his experience with involuntary confinement: Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 10.14.38 AM Source: It’s clear that the systems we have in place to treat individuals who suffering from mental illness, problematic drug use—or both— have failed us. There is definitely a need for more research and resources to explore alternative and better forms of treatment. Many organizations are studying the effect of using substances from ketamine to marijuana to treat depression. In 2012, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies conducted a study in Switzerland on  MDMA and PTSD with positive results. MDMA therapy has also been shown to reduce fear of dying for individuals close to the end of their lives.

Take Action.

Do an SSDP DARE (and get 10 points on the SSDP Chapter Activity Tracker)!
  • Submit five resources that your campus or community wellness facility has for mental health. Example
  1. Drop-in clinic (individual, group, referrals) 10am – 3:30pm M-F
  2. Student Advocates for Mental Health campus group
  3. Self-Help Resource Page– lacks information on drugs, only addresses alcohol
  4. Stress management and coping workshops
  5. Lectures and presentation series on various topics

Get Involved.

Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Monthly Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous newsletters have covered topics such as privilege, domestic violence, trans awareness, Black Lives Matter, and women’s unique experiences with the drug war. The DARE committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network, and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Monthly Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues. If you have any questions, please contact Frances at We look forward to reading your submissions!