Cronkite School writer-in-residence investigates rural mental health crisis

Terry Greene Sterling, writer-in-residence at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, released an investigative piece today that looks at the state of rural jails and the impact an underfunded mental health system has on them.

Her reporting, titled “Sick and Alone,” is part of a new series called Independent Lens Stories for Justice, which collaborates with local reporting partners or media outlets to elevate investigative stories that need to be told. Supported by ITVS, the Independent Television Service, the project is part of an effort to encourage and support local journalism.

READ: “Sick and Alone”

Reported for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, “Sick and Alone” tells the story of those who live with serious mental illness through an inmate in Cochise County who languishes in solitary confinement. A short documentary, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” by filmmaker James Burns, accompanies the piece.

The piece illuminates the struggles faced by rural communities, where health care services for mental illness are scarce, which leads a number of individuals through the legal system. Greene Sterling and Burns interviewed inmates, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and local residents to gauge the severity of the crisis.

“Cochise County jail is the largest behavioral center in the county for mental health,” Mark Dannels, Cochise County Sheriff, said, adding that he believes confinement is not beneficial for the mentally ill.

The investigation found that people living with a serious mental illness make up about 4.6 percent of the nation’s adult population, but they account for up to 26 percent of the inmate population. They also are more likely to stay longer and return to jail as compared to the rest of the inmate population.

Dannels said about two-thirds of his inmate population in Cochise County live with mental illness.

The project is funded by the Park Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, ITVS, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wyncote Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

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