An estimated 2 million times each year, people with serious mental health conditions are jailed or imprisoned in the U.S. Women are disproportionately impacted at twice the rate as men. For this population, incarceration may exacerbate pre-existing symptoms, says Carolina Estevez, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Miami.
“Frequently, individuals who are incarcerated receive inadequate medical care and mental health treatment,” says Dr. Estevez “This lack of access to proper care can result in conditions worsening over time.” She adds that the stigma this population faces from staff and peers may lead to further psychological distress. In fact, 63% of incarcerated individuals who have mental health conditions do not receive treatment—and for non-white individuals, their diagnoses puts them at greater risk for solitary confinement, injury and longer sentences.
The trauma and stress associated with incarceration have a potential snowball effect, exacerbating existing conditions and potentially contributing to new diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance abuse, adds Dr. Estevez. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), individuals with mental health conditions are more likely to experience incarceration. Additionally, those who have health care coverage following their release—and presumably, the access to mental health services that affords—may have less risk of recidivism.