Mental Health Amongst the Incarcerated Population: How to Help

Mental Health Amongst the Incarcerated Population: How to Help

Did you know that more than half of all prison and jail inmates have a mental health problem? This is over one million members of the incarcerated population. 

Despite the high prevalence of mental illness in jail, mental health services in prison are like something out of a dystopian novel. Many mentally ill prisoners are denied necessary and sometimes life-saving treatments. In addition, a low level of care leads to repeat offenses and is one of the driving forces behind the cycle of incarceration. 

If you're concerned about mental health in jail but aren't sure about the reality of the situation, you're not alone. We put together this brief overview of the problem and a few ways you can help, so read on to learn more.

Mental Health and Crime 

The statistics don't lie - the mentally ill are more likely to end up incarcerated than people without a mental health history. In fact, out of all the low-income men who ended up in prison before reaching 21, more than 80% had a mental health diagnosis. 

In addition, a recent loss of healthcare coverage and mental health services led to a spike in law-breaking behavior and an increased rate of incarceration. After state mental health care budgets were slashed, there has been a steady increase in the incarcerated mentally ill. 

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is also a huge factor in crime. Both drugs and alcohol are linked to violent crime and acting out. In addition, substance abuse is also directly correlated with mental health.

Untreated mental health issues can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse. This, in turn, can lead to incarceration. 

Prison and Mental Health

If you thought that the mentally ill would receive a higher level of compassion in jail, you're mistaken. Recent studies have shown that mentally ill prisoners are locked up for longer, and are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement than other prisoners. This also leads to a higher rate of suicide. 

Some surveys have uncovered prisoners with a prior mental health diagnosis were not even offered treatment in prison. Even if they were offered treatment, prison resources are incredibly limited. There is a distinct lack of therapy and other long-term support, both of which can reduce the chances of re-offending. 

It's expensive to keep someone incarcerated. It's even more expensive to incarcerate someone and pay for their mental health treatment. Due to low budgets and high costs, mental health resources behind bars are limited at best. 

Lack of Training

While prison guards do have some training in mental health concerns, this training is rarely ever enforced. There is a distinct power imbalance between the guards and prisoners, and this often results in abuse. 

Some guards have been known to beat prisoners, while others sexually assault the incarcerated. This type of inmate abuse is much more common than you might think and can be a contributing factor to mental illness. In some cases, it can also be fatal.

Mentally ill patients have demonstrated a decline in psychological condition after entering prison due to repeated harassment from guards. Their illness might cause them to act out. Instead of compassion, mental illness is then met with excessive violence.

Prison beatdowns are often linked to PTSD and can be a major contributing factor to spiraling mental health. 

Increased Prison Violence 

Untreated mentally ill prisoners present a danger to themselves and others. Leaving the mental illness untreated increases the risk of suicide. In addition, it increases the risk of violent attacks in prison.

As the incarceration of the mentally ill increases, the level of prison violence follows. Mentally ill patients who are untreated have attacked guards and fellow patients alike. 

How You Can Help

While the situation is currently bleak, it is not without hope. You can take several steps to help improve the outlook for prisoners with mental health issues. 

Stay Involved

If you know someone who is currently incarcerated, it's important to stay involved as much as possible. There are several positive correlations between the involvement of loved ones and a reduced risk of re-offending. In addition, prisoners who see their families are at a lower risk of misbehaving, which can limit time spent in solitary.

Family therapy is one of the best ways for the mentally ill to find support, improve communication, and change how they see their environments. While prisons generally don't offer family therapy, visiting your loved ones is a way to provide those same benefits. 

Develop a Transition Plan

After being released from prison, a former inmate is at a crossroads. The first few weeks after release are critical to keeping the inmate from reoffending. If you know someone who is being released, offer compassion and try to help form a comprehensive transition plan.

This means finding mental health resources and support groups, and providing continued family support for your loved one. 

Support Inmate Rights

Some nonprofits like the Treatment Advocacy Center fight for prisoner's rights and hope to increase the availability of mental health resources for inmates. Supporting their work is one way to promote inmate rights.  

Do Your Part to Support the Incarcerated Population

While the mental health crisis in the incarcerated population is severe, you can do your part to help. Stay connected with inmates, offer support and understanding, and be vocal when advocating for inmate rights. 

If you want to find a loved one who's incarcerated and figure out how to visit them so you can stay connected, reach out to us at Jail Exchange. We can help you stay involved and informed.