• Ideas
  • Family

My Mother Needed Mental Health Treatment. She Got a Jail Cell

7 minute read
St. Pierre is a queer essayist and culture writer whose work has appeared in Elle, GQ , Harper’s Bazaar, The Cut, Gossamer, Nylon, Outside, and more. She is a 2023 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Nonfiction Literature. She holds an MFA from Rutgers and lives in New York City. Love Is a Burning Thing is her first book

I had just arrived back in the States when I got the call. It was January 2004, and after a semester abroad studying literature in Italy, I was as far mentally and geographically as I’d ever had from my mother and 15-year-old brother. I was still thinking in Italian when I got the call from a family friend. My mother had set her house on fire, the friend told me, and was being held in county jail on charges of Felony arson.

A stream of questions ran through my mind, but in the shock, all I said was: “You can’t light your own house on fire?”

My mom’s friend chuckled, deflecting the question’s absurdity. “No honey,” she cooed. “Apparently, that’s a Felony.” I was days away from starting my final semester at college, but I emailed my professors, flew home, and picked my brother up just in time for visiting hours.

In the visiting room, the three of us sat slumped in shell chairs on either side of a plexiglass wall, phone receivers tucked against our ears, oscillating between confusion and heartbreak as my mother recounted what had happened. In a fugue state, she’d set fire to the house, but as it went up in flames, she became lucid. Realizing what she’d done, she called the fire department and ran out of the house. She was waiting on the lawn when they arrived. But instead of being offered care, she was escorted to a squad car and driven 20 minutes up California’s Interstate-5 to the county jail, where she was promptly booked.

What she needed was mental health treatment; what she got was a cell.

Her story isn’t rare. A March 2024 Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) report on women and incarceration concluded that 80% of women in state prisons are mothers, most, primary caretakers; and that 76% of women have past or current mental health problems, a significantly higher rate than men in the same demographic. In the last few decades, women’s incarceration has grown at twice the rate of men. There is hypocrisy in how we treat mothers: As Mother’s Day approaches and we get ready to shower maternal figures with flowers and Hallmark sentiments, we honor, even revere the mother culturally. But single mothers are still stigmatized—both in policy and ideology. Many mothers, particularly single mothers living in poverty or with little safety net or community to bolster them, don’t report warning signs, or even crises when they have them, for fear of losing their children. Asking for help comes at a cost—and is oftentimes simply too dangerous.

Later, I would come to understand that what my mother experienced that day was a psychotic break. It didn’t happen overnight. There had been signs. For years, decades even. In fact, at 20 years old, she’d had a similar break that left her hospitalized for months. By the time my brother and I came along, she was functional enough and privileged enough—white, traditionally attractive, educated, and with a healthy dose of natural charm—to move through the world at will. She wanted to be a mother more than anything and often prized autonomy and her right to parent over stability, choosing to work less so she could be home with us, and moving frequently. Raising us on her own, she scraped by on part-time work, child support, and occasional government assistance. She knew how to slip around the lurking eyes of society looking down on her—on all poor single mothers.

Any single parent bears great weight, but in the U.S., single mothers, femme-presenting, or nonbinary people, shoulder different expectations than fathers or masculine-presenting parents. They experience higher rates of psychological distress, often due to finances. And they are perceived differently. A 2021 Pew Research study tracked American attitudes toward single mothers. In 2018, when asked if women raising children on their own was bad for society, 40% said yes. In 2021, it was 47%. Incremental, but not insignificant as abortion rights are stripped at dizzying rates.

A government that forces people into parenthood and penalizes them when asking for help as the struggle is a no-win cul-de-sac, and for some, it’s not just a U-turn but potential jail time that looms—a risk greatly exacerbated by class and race.

Read More: Mental Illness Made My First Year as a Mom Excruciating. I’m Just Lucky It Wasn’t Worse

According to the PPI report, 2.6 million children have had a parent in jail or prison. The image of my mother in a state-issued orange jumpsuit was dissonant, but for many families it’s the unfortunate outcome of living in a system that criminalizes poverty. A 2022 joint report by the Human Rights Watch and the ACLU on the impacts of family separation, found that families living in poverty, “often have limited, or no access to resources, services, and social supports for the kinds of issues many parents struggle with, such as mental health, relationships, services for children with disabilities, or responding to behavioral issues.”

My mother told me that when I was young, she had once partaken in free counseling services from a government agency, and soon after, received a home visit from Child Protective Services. She never talked to anyone after that. A parent with the insight to notice warning signs in themselves should be supported not penalized. But the system isn’t well-prepared to assess these situations with nuance. In fact, the HRW/ACLU study found that many caseworkers in the child welfare system, the agency responsible for reporting perceived neglect, don’t have mental health training at all.

Children must be protected. But by stripping a mother’s ability to get help and keep her children at the same time, we put under resourced communities at greater risk of losing their kids for good. In a way, my mother, like many others, endangered us and herself in order to protect our family unit.

After three months, she was released on what’s called a deferred judgment, a ruling that stated if she attended mandated counseling and got into no further legal trouble for three years, her record would be cleared. She’d never been charged before, so it was unlikely to happen again. But if for some reason it had, my mother would have been saddled with a felony record for having a mental breakdown. And with a felony record, would have been less able to find work, increasing the likelihood of continued poverty, and threat of recidivism, thus carrying on the punitive cycle ad infinitum. Still, she was one of the “lucky ones.” What she experienced is increased multifold by mothers of color.

Unfortunately, she died of technically unrelated causes before the three years was up.

Today, my mother has been dead almost 20 years. But every year, around this time, I wonder what it would look like if she had been given the necessary care absent of threat to her parental rights. I wonder how we might center interventions of care and support instead of punitive measures. What if we assumed the best of mothers, first? Mostly, I wonder how we might help parents living with mental illness keep their families intact.

I know there are many opinions and no simple solutions, here. That to move away from punishment and toward compassion and complexity would require not only major policy shifts, but a cultural sea-change in how we understand family and what it means to protect its sanctity and sanity. But when we talk about who deserves help, we must consider what it costs to ask. The price is not the same for everyone.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.