Whenever a person suffers from both a mental illness and an addiction, it is impossible to separate those two issues or to treat one but not the other and expect recovery. The two problems are inextricably linked because substance abuse can exacerbate mental health symptoms and people with psychological disorders often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.
Dual diagnosis is a serious issue for people in prison as nearly three quarters of those in jail with a mental illness are also dealing with a drug addiction. Those in prison who are struggling with these issues unfortunately do not get the kind of care they need in order to recover and improve their health. While in jail people with dual diagnoses are separated from their community and family support system and are deprived of the kind of services that would help them lead better lives.
Issues Affecting Prisoners
While the justice system has measures in place to provide some kind of treatment, they are often limited in their ability to treat people effectively and holistically especially in cases of dual diagnosis. Because the justice system tends to deliver care based on legal and punitive decisions rather than the clinical needs of each individual those in prison often find it difficult to recover from their addictions.
A study of individuals that are in prison due to issues with drugs and mental health problems challenged assumptions that their psychological symptoms were to blame for their crimes. The results of the study showed that a complex combination of issues contributed to each person committing a crime including problems with homelessness, unemployment, trauma, addiction, loneliness and poverty.
Many of those in prison felt that with stable homes, jobs and stronger relationships they could prevent future arrests. The participants also felt that if they were able to stay away from drugs they might be able to avoid returning to the justice system.
Improving Programs and Support
The study’s goal was to highlight the need to provide people in prison with mental health care and substance abuse treatment so that they can create better lives and never end up back in jail again. People with a dual diagnosis in prison have specific needs that need to be addressed including addiction, housing and employment which are all problems that tend to land them in prison.
Many of the people in prison suffering from mental health issues and an addiction need counseling and medication-assisted recovery treatments such as methadone maintenance. It is also important for community programs to expand the use of overdose prevention drugs like Naloxone. Police should also refrain from arresting addicts around harm reduction clinics such as syringe exchanges so that they can engage in recovery without worrying about potentially returning to prison.
People in the justice system suffering from both a mental illness and a drug addiction can also be assisted by providing housing first models. These are programs in which people that are chronically homeless are offered opportunities for permanent housing as well as support services when necessary.
As long as they are able to abstain from drug use through recovery, housing programs can provide much needed stability and shelter for people with mental illnesses. Having a home can help prevent any relapse into criminal behavior and can also improve their wellbeing so that their symptoms are less severe.
This type of intervention along with a number of others may be more effective in supporting prisoners with a dual diagnosis and preventing them from getting arrested multiple times. The programs the justice system currently offers are not enough to support the complex needs of prisoners with mental illnesses.