Mental Health Awareness Month Gets Boost from Stepping Up Initiative

Since 1949, the month of May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States.[1] Raising the profile of mental disorders such as addiction, depression, bipolar disorder and suicide has played an important role in breaking down barriers and reducing the stigma often attached with mental illness and seeking help.

While the national dialogue regarding  mental health has been elevated with acceptance in popular culture, the prevalence of mental illness in America’s jails have state and local governments joining forces with mental health professionals and advocates to offer hope to those who find themselves not only in the criminal justice system, but in need of treatment and services.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness[2] and that approximately 24 percent of state prisoners have a recent history of a mental health condition.[3] These statistics support the fact that America’s jails now serve more people with mental illnesses than inpatient treatment facilities.

Housing such high numbers of individuals with serious mental health concerns in America’s jails presents not only a burden to state and local budgets—as the costs of serving this population can be two to three times the cost of housing individuals without those needs—but also a challenge to providing adequate treatments and services that can help reduce recidivism rates among those with mental health concerns.[4] The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, The National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation have joined forces to reduce the number of people living with mental illnesses in America's jails.

The Stepping Up Initiative, supported in part by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, seeks to raise awareness of the heavy population of individuals living with mental illnesses in jails across the nation by both establishing a call to action and convening a national summit to present a plan to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails.[5]

As part of the call to action, the initiative is building a diverse team of stakeholders who will develop a plan of action to meet the goal of reducing the number of people living with mental illness in jails by assessing prevalence numbers, examining current treatment practices and service capacities, and developing an assessment tool to track the progress of the plan once completed.[6]

The Stepping Up Initiative joins other state-driven solutions such as the Interstate Compact on Mental Health, which since 1956 has facilitated agreements between 46 states and the District of Columbia to set standards for faster responses to mental health issues as well as continuing to raise the quality of services available.[7]

For more information on the Stepping Up Initiative, please visit