Mental Health Care Lacking for Women in Prison

Posted on January 20th, 2015

Mental Health Care Lacking for Women in PrisonIt may not be surprising to hear that many women who find themselves in prison suffer from mental health issues. Women aren’t alone in this fact. Men in prison struggle with mental illnesses too, but women seem to suffer more. Even worse is the fact that treatment for these issues is severely lacking. In order to help women, prevent recidivism and give incarcerated women a hopeful future, this needs to change.

Mental Illness in Prison 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics points to the prevalence of mental illness in prison and particularly in incarcerated women. The facts demonstrate that 73 to 75 percent of women in jail or prison have some type of mental illness. The rate for men is lower at 55 to 60 percent. More women than men in prison have been diagnosed with a mental illness, have been given medication or have stayed overnight in a facility for treatment of a mental illness

The underlying causes of mental illness for incarcerated women are complex and multiple. Many of the women who end up in prison are substance abusers and are convicted of drug-related crimes. Many also have suffered trauma in their lives, including physical and sexual abuse. Furthermore, these women often come from poverty and have had few opportunities.

Mental Health Treatment in Prison

There are many reasons why women in prison are likely to have mental illnesses. There are also several consequences, including an increased risk for violence and for punitive treatment while incarcerated. What is most troubling, though, is the lack of care for such women while in prison. If women received the treatment they needed, they would be less likely to continue to use substances, commit another crime or violate probation and end up back in jail.

In state prisons, only 34 percent of inmates with mental illness symptoms get any treatment. In federal prisons, only 24 percent of inmates with mental illness get any treatment. The main type of treatment offered is medication. Therapy of any kind is rare in prison, although it is recognized by experts as an important part of care.

The facts about treatment for women’s mental health issues in prisons are part of a larger failure to address this important aspect of health for all women. It is clear that there are failures at all levels. Women who are victims of abuse and trauma or who abuse substances are not treated often enough or well enough and are likely to end up in prison. While there, they do not receive the care they need. After leaving prison, their mental health needs are still not met and they continue with the same behaviors and choices as previously. Nothing changes and life rarely gets better for these women.

The consequences of lack of treatment are important for individual women, but also represent a public health problem. According to the statistics, the women in prison with untreated mental health issues are more likely to abuse drugs, commit a violent offense, be homeless, be incarcerated multiple times and be charged with an assault while in prison.

Mental health is an important part of overall health and it is an aspect of medical care that has long been ignored in the vulnerable population of incarcerated women. Attitudes and resources must be shifted in order to change the status quo and help women get better, lead more fulfilling lives and get out of the prison system.

By: Mary Ellen Ellis

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