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Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

LINN COUNTY, IA (CBS 2/FOX 28) -- The inmate who shot a West Union deputy before turning the gun on himself had a history of mental illness.
Steven Harreld's family released a statement Tuesday saying they are saddened by the events, and expressed relief that the deputy wasn't injured. They say he had spent years battling bi-polar disorder, substance abuse and depression --- and that he was afraid to go back to prison.

At the time of the shooting, the 32-year-old was receiving treatment for an unknown medical issue at Palmer Lutheran Health Center. The gun belonged to Fayette county deputy Jeremy Stiefel.

Harreld's family says that this incident, and others nationwide, shows that changes are needed in the criminal justice system when it comes to mental health -

Advocates say the issue of mental health in America has proven to be a touchy subject.

"It does seem like a problem no one wants to get involved with," says mental health advocate Joan Becker.

However, Becker cautions that it won't just go away.

"The stigma attached with a mental illness should not be any different than a person that has diabetes, or cancer, or any other illness," Becker says. "Attack it, address it, and diagnose it."

She says she knows what it's like to deal with that stigma. Her son Mark is spending the rest of his life in prison for killing Aplingtion-Parkersburg Coach Ed Thomas back in 2009.

Becker says Mark suffered from Paranoid Schizophrenia, but didn't get help until it was too late. Now she advocates for change in the mental health field - especially in the criminal justice system.

"They currently are understaffed, and don't have the right staff to provide those services," Becker says.

Some say bringing about that change is easier said than done.

"County jails were never designed to provide those services," says Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner. "County jails are provided to safeguard inmates."

Gardner says despite that...

"County jails are the leading provider of mental health services nationwide."

He says they do they best they can, working with the Abbe Center to provide treatment to inmates, but Gardner says the end result is a never-ending cycle.

"We treat them here, they stop receiving treatment on the streets, they go back to having mental health issues, they commit crimes because of that, and they come right back through that revolving door."

Becker agrees, and says it'll take serious changes to the law to stop that door.

"Open up some of these providers so they can communicate with other entities," she says.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 61.5 million Americans experience mental illness in a given year.
About 13.6 million Americans live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
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