Mental Health In Prison: The Facts

Mental illness and its prevalence both across the world and the country is rather well-documented: roughly 1 in 5 Americans live with some form of mental illness. Generally excluded in these conversations and significantly less publicized, however, is the mental health standing of the prison population. Nearly 2 in every 5 prisoners suffers from mental illness; a rate of twice the general adult population and of those individuals, 63% will not receive any form of mental health treatment during their incarceration. Due to the lack of adequate resources in the criminal justice system, 50% of inmates who were taking prescribed medication for their mental health are unable to continue once incarcerated. Considering the intense benefits of both medication and mental health treatment, it is not surprising that those with little or no access act out and end up in solitary confinement or removed from programmed events which only exacerbates the condition.

Interestingly, the numbers vary slightly between prison and jail; the likelihood of mental illness around 37% in state and federal prisons compared to the 44% of jail inmates where 1/3 had been previously diagnosed with major depressive disorder and nearly 1/4 with bipolar disorder.

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Other Options Than Incarceration?

Prison reform poses an interesting and complicated dilemma, especially when considering the individual crime(s). Where is the line between humanity and morality when it comes to criminal behavior and should the treatment of the offender reflect the offense? Certainly a difficult and multifaceted issue, the American Psychological Association illustrates some research-based alternatives to the traditional criminal justice model.

Emphasizing Teaching And Treatment

Recognizing the insufficient resources available to those within the criminal justice system, there are scientists investigating alternative solutions. Robert Morgan, PhD, a psychology professor in Texas has developed a program called Changing Lives and Changing Outcomes that is comprised of therapy and intervention. Unlike the traditional model of tossing someone in a cell and expecting them to “learn their lesson,” this approach aims to combat what Dr. Morgan refers to as “criminalness:” the behaviors and patterns often associated with criminal behavior. Because this program couples both care and treatment, the aim is to appropriately prepare those who suffer from mental illness with healthy coping skills.

Reduce Solitary Confinement

Similarly, after studying hundreds of inmates in isolation, psychologist Craig Haney, PhD, aims to reduce the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. Through his research, Dr. Haney has found that those in isolation, completely removed from any meaningful interaction with others, exhibit signs of depression, suffer from memory loss, have difficulty concentrating, and are intensely irritated or angry. Other studies have illustrated that people may experience stress-related symptoms like decreased appetite, sleeplessness, heart palpitations, and more. The human mind is not meant to exist in solitude and over time it adapts to a self-created reality of isolation, making it difficult to ever be comfortable in the presence of other people again. Thus, Dr. Haney advocates for a more humane approach, modeled after a Norwegian system, where the facility seeks to imitate normal daily life as much as possible while emphasizing meaningful connections between inmates and officers who are more like social workers.

The Brain’s Response To Trauma

The relationship between inmates and correctional officers is crucial in the overall wellbeing of the prisoners. Dave Stephens, PsyD, studies the brain’s response to trauma and seeks to help prison officers understand, on a scientific level, the behaviors and actions of inmates. His general approach is to appeal to the humanity of the officers, explaining how prisoners with a history of traumatic experiences or mental illness might react in various situations. The goal is to treat the prisoners with respect, while helping them learn what to expect and how to react in new and different situations. In conjunction, Stephens also advocates for facilities to be forthright with new inmates in explaining the possible psychological experiences and urging prisoners to advocate for themselves should they need for mental care. While he has encountered officers and other prison staff who do not believe it is part of their job description to address the mental health of those in their care, Stephens expressed that they are more receptive after conversations about how the policy/attitude changes that he suggests improve the safety for both inmates and prison workers.

Community Service As Treatment?

Rather than institutionalizing individuals with mental conditions, forensic scientist W. Neil Gowensmith, PhD believes in the power of community service when it comes to nonviolent and misdemeanor offenders. Research from over a dozen states implementing such programs as community outpatient treatment has shown to be nearly as effective as inpatient care at a lesser cost and without sacrificing the safety of a community. Essentially, if individuals remain connected to their communities and are provided the education and opportunity to learn from their mistakes and give back, they are less likely to be arrested again.

Substance Abuse In Prison

While difficult to determine exact statistics, it has been estimated that roughly 65% of the prison population suffers from some form of a substance use disorder (SUD). However, other data shows that approximately 20% of inmates were under the influence of a substance at the time of their crime, though they might not have met the diagnostic criteria for a SUD. Unfortunately, much like the overwhelming lack of resources available to treat inmates struggling with mental illness, the criminal justice system largely neglects the treatment of those with addiction issues, too.

Prisoners As People

For some, it may feel easy to forget that the individuals in prison are still people. While it must require a certain level of discretion and discernment when deciding the fate of those condemned to time behind bars, there must also be at least an awareness of humanity. In order to truly reform a system to function effectively, there needs to be somewhat of a common goal to instruct and treat those already suffering from a mental illness.

Struggling With Your Own Mental Health?

It is important to remember to pay mind to your own mental wellness. Life today requires a significant amount of mental fortitude to get by in even the simplest of circumstances. Try to remember to treat yourself with kindness and take time to relax and put your mental health first whenever possible. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health or addiction/abuse concerns, reach out to a treatment provider. Speaking to someone is free and confidential and they will be able to assist and direct you forward.

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Hannah Zwemer

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  • Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

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