May is mental health month and today is blog party day–the day when bloggers around the world have been encouraged to blog to raise awareness of mental health issues. This post is dedicated to raising awareness of the mental health issues in a growing segment of our population—individuals who are incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Forensic Psychology in Jails and Prisons

As a forensic psychologist, I deal with the reality of mental illness and its impact on others on a daily basis. In my role as a professor and researcher, I teach my students and the academic community about the high rates of depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, in our incarcerated populations. As a forensic evaluator, I work with those individuals whose mental illness has played a significant role in their current legal circumstances. I see firsthand how someone’s severe and chronic mental illness has played a significant role in leading him to commit a crime and perhaps to hurt others. In the best-case scenario, these severely mentally ill individuals are sent to a forensic hospital for a period of confinement and treatment, rather than to a jail or prison. Most of the time, however, this does not happen and the severely mentally ill are sentenced to periods of confinement (incarceration) in our nations’ jails and prisons. What I have come to realize, however, is just how little the public knows about the impoverished conditions for mental health treatment in jails and prisons.

Mental Health Disorders

In the last few decades, the number of incarcerated individuals with severe mental illness has increased so significantly that prisons may now be the largest mental health providers in the United States. Prison conditions, by their very nature, are not conducive to mental health; they are overcrowded, there is little or no privacy, inmates lack meaningful activities and are isolated from friends and family, violence is high, and perhaps most importantly, most prisons do not have adequate health services and certainly inadequate mental health services.

The prevalence rates of specific mental illnesses—such as major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia to name just a few—are higher in jails and prisons than they are in the general population. Yet, adequate mental health services in many jails and prisons simply do not exist. Inmates receive inappropriate or inadequate mental health treatment (if they receive it at all) and many inmates receive nothing more than medication, which is oftentimes poorly administered or supervised. It is common for an inmate in need of medication to not receive any medication because the prison or jail does not have the medical staff required to monitor the administration or dosage or the medication is not in the formulary for the particular facility (most commonly because of the cost). Many prisons have a psychiatrist who is in attendance for one half-day a week and who does not have the time to see any but those who are most in need (meaning those who are usually actively psychotic).

Forensic Psychologists / Criminal Psychologists

The number of mental health professionals who are employed by the Department of Corrections and the Bureau of Prisons is not nearly enough to meet the demand. One survey of mental health services in jails and prisons indicated that the rate of inmates to mental health professionals was 900:1—clearly nowhere near what it would take to adequately treat the mental health needs of the prison population.

Forensic Careers

I have had many students ask me about a career in forensic psychology and what it takes to make a difference. In this field, it doesn’t take much to make a difference. There is a dire need for masters and doctoral-level clinicians to meet the growing mental health needs of our incarcerated populations. If this is an area of interest for you or someone you know, please give serious consideration to getting involved and making a difference!