Prisons Fall Short in Mental Health Care

Posted on November 21st, 2013
Posted in Recovery

As states buckle under budget cuts and are forced to make choices on what services to provide to citizens, they are often forced to limit the availability of mental health services.

A study published in Pediatrics noted that more than one-third of all young adults have experienced at least one arrest before the age of 23. In addition, 6.6 percent of the population has experienced an arrest at some point, and more than half of those in prison have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

There clearly is a connection between mental health problems and criminal behavior. With state hospitals cutting budgets or being eliminated altogether, combined with the reality that mental health care is not financially possible for many people, the number of untreated mental health conditions will continue to be a problem.

The experience of being in prison can, itself, increase the severity of symptoms of mental health disorders or even introduce a new mental health issue in an individual who has never experienced any symptoms.

While mental health care is provided in prisons, there is no standardized system used across the prison system. Stability is the focus of prison mental health programs as opposed to recovery. While many severe cases may be treated to limit the effects of hallucinations or psychotic episodes, other less disruptive symptoms may go untreated. Symptoms of depression and anxiety may not receive any treatment.

As a result, untreated mental health disorders may grow progressively worse as the incarceration continues.

In addition, the environment in most prisons is frightening even for those who are mentally healthy when they begin their sentence. The Department of Justice reports that sexual abuse is widespread, with 70,000 prisoners reporting abuse each year. Female prisoners are at risk for sexual assault by guards. In addition, violence is common. These conditions can result in anxiety and depression, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

For those who experience mental health issues in the general population, most can count on the support of friends and family around them. In prison, no such support system exists. Even phone calls to loved ones may be out of reach for prisoners who come from a background of poverty.

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