Linda Teplin, PhD, conducted a study that found eight percent of all prisoners suffer from severe mental illness. However, not all of these receive treatment while in prison. That eight percent does not include prisoners with less severe mental health problems, either, like “garden variety” depression or stress or anxiety due to being incarcerated for a prolonged period of time. The mental health services offered to prisoners vary greatly from state to state and may even vary from prison to prison within one state.
Some prisoners report that they are discouraged or penalized in some way for seeking mental health services in prison. For instance, Brenda (not her real name), a prisoner in Mississippi, says she had the opportunity to move to a less restrictive housing unit where she could receive food packages from home and purchase recreational materials, like yarn and other supplies so she could crochet. However, people that take psychotropic medications are not allowed to live on the less restrictive housing unit. Brenda had to choose between taking medication she needed or being allowed to receive food packages and crochet in her spare time.
Some prisoners take psychotropic drugs, like antidepressants, tranquilizers and anti-psychotic drugs. Prisoners may have greater access to medications than to counseling while incarcerated. However, in many prisons, prisoners must pay for prescription medications and some may have difficulty affording the drugs that they need, especially if they need multiple medications. Leroy (not his real name), prisoner in Pennsylvania, reports that he must pay $5 for a 30 day supply of medication, which is difficult for him to manage since he earns less than $1 a day at his prison job.
Some prisons offer counseling to prisoners but others do not. The qualifications of counselors vary greatly from prison to prison even when counseling is available. For instance, Michelle (not her real name), a prisoner in Tennessee, reports that she can see an unlicensed counselor if she wants to but that the quality of the counseling services she received when she tried counseling was very poor. Her counselor said if she would just go to church every week, her depression would go away. Of course, church attendance is not a proven treatment for depression the way psychotherapies like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy are.
Substance Abuse Treatment
A 2004 study determined that 32 percent of prisoners were under the influence of drugs when they committed the crime for which they were sent to prison. The same study found that less than half all off prisoners reporting drug or alcohol problems received any treatment for those problems while incarcerated, however. Of course prisoners should not have access to drugs or alcohol while incarcerated (although some manage to access these substances anyway), but lack of access to illegal substances is not treatment and addicts that do not receive treatment may return to using or abusing these substances after their release from prison.
Many prisons offer self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to prisoners. Prisoners can continue to attend these groups after their release from prison if they want to do so since they are readily available in most communities. Self-help groups are a great adjunct to mental health treatment but should not be considered a replacement for professional mental health services, however.
Office of Justice Programs. http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/dcf/dt.cfm. Drug Treatment Under Correctional Supervision.
Psychiatric News. http://pn.psychiatryonline.org/content/41/20/1.1.full. Prison Mental Health Crisis Continues to Grow.
Prison Policy Initiative. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/.