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Mental Health in the American Prison System
There has always been much controversy regarding prisoners and their mental health, but as civilization has experienced much progress throughout this century people have become more and more concerned about making sure that prisons are able to differentiate between individuals who are mentally ill and persons who are not. Even with the fact that prisons were never design to accommodate the mentally ill, conditions are critical today as a great deal of men and women who are unable to get mental health treatment in the communities they live in are incarcerated consequent to committing an illegality. There are a great deal of people suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression in U.S., thus meaning that society needs to open its eyes and focus on devising solutions for this issue (Mental Illness, Human Rights, and U.S. Prisons).
II. The Problem
One of the most disturbing aspects about mentally ill individuals in prisons is the fact that these people have access to limited health care. "Criminalization of mental illness refers to the practice of arresting and prosecuting mentally ill offenders, even for misdemeanors, at a rate four times that of the general population in an effort to contain them in some type of institution where they might receive needed treatment" (Videbeck 379). There are numerous inmates who have special needs, but they are not receiving adequate health care. Many prisons are not sufficiently equipped and staffed and this means that required clinical and similar tasks are not likely to be available in critical situations.
Many institutions prefer to accept the mentally ill and treat them similar to normal individuals because they want to avoid the problems coming along with having to provide them with adequate treatment. The problem here is much greater than someone might be inclined to suspect: "According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 56% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners have symptoms or a recent history of mental health problems" (Mental Illness, Human Rights, and U.S. Prisons). Many prisoners require psychiatric interventions at certain moments during their incarceration and although some of them actually go through this process, others are provided with even harsher penalties as the authorities intentionally (in some cases this is involuntarily) believe that there is nothing wrong with these individuals.
Mentally ill prisoners are probable to experience more and more problems as a result of their incarceration and their condition is likely to deteriorate. Such cases typically involve prisoners disobeying orders and being provided with more severe penalties. These strategies are not only ineffective, as they can actually worsen the prisoner's state. In some cases prisoners end up committing suicide because they are not differentiated from the rest and because they are not provided with adequate care. "Mental health treatment can help some prisoners recover from their illness and for many others it can alleviate its painful symptoms, prevent deterioration, and protect them from suicide" (Mental Illness, Human Rights, and U.S. Prisons).
In order to gain a more complex understanding of the experiences that a mentally ill person goes through while in prison, one would first have to accept that prison time is traumatizing for basically anyone. Normal prisoners struggle to maintain their self-esteem and to avoid being abused. In contrast, mentally ill prisoners are vulnerable to be abused and are usually targeted by other prisoners and exploited as a result of their failure to distinguish between right and wrong.
II. Mass media influence and public opinion
The mass media has a tendency to categorize mentally ill criminals as villains and actually influences the public's opinion by having it concentrate on the gravity of the crime rather than on the criminal's mental state. Even with the fact that professionals are actively involved in preventing the masses from getting a wrong understanding, the media is much more powerful in changing people's perspective.
The mass media is simply interested in sensational stories and it will never be interested in telling the truth if they believe that their version of reality is likely to bring much more supporters. "The combination of public punitiveness and misinformation is undoubtedly fostered by media sensationalism of serious crime and disingenuous political attitudes toward telling the truth about crime, offenders, and offending" (Cornwell 40). Regardless of whether or not a criminal is mentally ill, the media needs to promote the idea that crimes are committed by evil individuals and that it is essential for the masses to want to punish criminals.
The masses have to accept the fact that the authorities and the mass media are infatuated with penalizing criminals. The fact that the rate of mentally ill individuals in prisons is larger than the number of mentally ill individuals who are free is certainly disturbing and proves that the authorities have trouble distinguishing between people who need special treatment and normal criminals.
Conditions are going to become even more critical if no actions are being taken regarding the problem. The number of mentally ill prisoners is likely to increase in the near future as long as the authorities continue to ignore the issue. It is actually surprising to observe how society in general is willing to accept such an immorality. Not only are people who cannot be judged for their actions being sent to prison, as their condition is further deteriorated by the conditions they experience while being incarcerated. The world is practically responsible for harming mentally ill individuals when considering matters from a more general perspective. Mentally ill criminals are being treated as if they were sane and even though it is obvious that this has a negative effect both on their thinking and on the social order as a whole, people continue to act as if it would be pointless for them to do anything about this situation as long as it does not concern them directly.
III. Solutions to a hidden problem
Society has to open its eyes and understand that it is in its best interest to provide mentally ill individuals with a positive environment, both when they are free and when they are incarcerated. It is actually important for people to comprehend that many mentally ill individuals would not become criminals if they were to receive adequate treatment while being free.
Nurses need to be well-acquainted with legal and ethical responsibilities concerning mentally ill individuals who committed crimes. Mental health is an important issue when considering the U.S. prison system and nurses are often among the individuals who directly interact with mentally ill prisoners and who need to provide them with proper treatment. The fact that one third of all prison suicides occur within the prisoner's first week in jail actually demonstrates that treatment needs to begin from the very first moments that a deranged individuals spends incarcerated. "Fully trained mental health and correctional staff in prisons are rare because of the lack of qualified professionals working in the system as well as because of budgetary constraints" (Finkel 227).
Nursing can play an important role in assisting mentally ill individuals who are incarcerated by providing them with the treatment they need. Even with this, it all comes down to the funds that the government is willing to allocate to prisons across the country in an attempt to make sure that mental health becomes one of the most important concepts in the American prison system.
Nurses are not only important because they can treat mentally ill individuals in prison, as they can also get actively involved in changing the public's opinion concerning these people. The masses' opinion is fueled by stereotypes relating to how individuals who are mentally ill need to be feared, kept away from, and put in institutions. "If such people cannot be confined to mental hospitals for any period, there seems to be public support for arresting and incarcerating them instead (Videbeck 379). The reality is that mentally ill individuals are more likely to become victims of violence, both while free and in prison.
Working as a nurse in prison can be very demanding, as nurses typically encounter much resistance. Mentally ill prisoners can either put across hostile behavior or can try to mask their feelings in an attempt to seem normal. Nurses can actually help these people that it is in their best interest to express their feelings directly. By trying to treat mentally ill prisoners, a nurse can experience particularly good results. He or she basically needs to teach individuals that feelings are one of the most important concepts and that by learning how to put across their sentiments they are more probable to experience a lesser number of episodes during which their illness comes into play. "The nurse can help them examine the relationship between feelings and subsequent actions" (Videbeck 342). Anger is not necessarily a negative feeling and it can actually be more harmful to…