Overrepresented and Overlooked: Behavioral Health Challenges for Incarcerated Individuals   

Overrepresented and Overlooked: Behavioral Health Challenges for Incarcerated Individuals   

1 in 2 adults in the United States has had a family member in jail or prison. Despite this high prevalence, the needs of justice-involved individuals often remain a silent narrative. Incarcerated individuals face twice the risk for behavioral health challenges compared to the overall adult population – facing higher prevalence, intensified impacts and the urgent need for tailored solutions to address the unique behavioral health needs of this often-overlooked population. Because of these sobering statistics, healthcare providers must prioritize care for this population too.  

In the confined spaces of jails and prisons, individuals with behavioral health issues are more common than those who don’t struggle, constituting a staggering 60% of state and federal prisoners with substance use disorder (SUD). Formerly incarcerated individuals with SUD experience a 12-fold increase in the likelihood of death or overdose following their release. The consequences of these challenges are far-reaching, resulting in more extended stays in costly emergency rooms, intensified problems and a significantly higher chance of death post-incarceration. 

To better serve this vulnerable population, external organizations, including Medicaid providers and other health system decision-makers, must first recognize and then actively work to mitigate these challenges. Successfully addressing the needs of the justice-involved population is a multi-pronged effort across our healthcare system, requiring cohesive communication and resource allocation from providers, insurers, hospitals, health systems and third parties with a specific focus on the following: 

  • Improving communication between community corrections programs and healthcare treatment providers: Unfortunately, many incarcerated individuals fall through the cracks due to insufficient communication and follow-up between programs and providers. As community corrections programs work with external treatment providers, it is critical these organizations adopt technology or other efficient programs to streamline information sharing and gain insight into available treatment options, ensuring that individuals seamlessly receive the necessary support. 
  • Incorporating justice involvement into behavioral health treatment planning: Behavioral health providers must incorporate justice involvement into their treatment planning, recognizing the prevalence of trauma both before and during incarceration. Providers can offer more effective and empathetic care by understanding the complexities of the criminal justice system and the heightened risk of retraumatization. 
  • Moving at the speed of trust: Building trust is critical to addressing the unique needs of justice-involved individuals. External organizations must prioritize and take time to exemplify that they are not an extension of the criminal justice system. Patience and thoughtful strategies to establish trust in therapeutic relationships are essential, recognizing the reasonable reluctance of justice-involved individuals to trust authority figures. 
  • Allocating substance use recovery resources to jail settings: One impactful way to address behavioral health challenges within the incarcerated population is to continue supporting access to medication-assisted treatment options for those dealing with substance use disorders. This approach ensures that individuals receive comprehensive care within and outside jail settings. 

Our societal safety net is intricately intertwined with the needs of incarcerated individuals. Beyond the challenges within the jail setting, released individuals may face additional risks that threaten both individual and community safety, including the risk of re-incarceration, emergency department use, hospitalization, homelessness and death by overdose.  

When we address the behavioral health needs of incarcerated or recently incarcerated individuals, we sow the seeds for healthier communities. Those who successfully navigate recovery have the potential to return to their families and communities as positive contributors, reducing the prevalence of SUD and lessening associated risks, such as homelessness and higher crime rates. 

The story of justice-involved individuals with behavioral health challenges deserves attention, understanding and action. By acknowledging these unique struggles, implementing tailored solutions, such as technology, behavioral health planning and recovery resources within jails, we can collectively work toward building a society where the wellbeing of all is prioritized. 

Are you seeking to better offer healthcare solutions that support justice-involved patients? Connect with us today.