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mHealth Might Solve Our Prisons' Mental Health Problem


Too many incarcerated patients go untreated, but a new wave of tech is on the horizon.

prison healthcare,prison mhealth,jail medicine,hca news

The population with mental health disabilities and their spread into the United States correctional system is becoming a problem of great importance. Because of the influx of inmates with some type of mental health condition, correctional facilities are often referred to as the new psychiatric asylums by criminal justice staffers. Since the 1950s, the US has seen a decrease of more than 500,000 beds in state psychiatric hospitals, according to the National Research Institute Analytics Improving Behavioral Health. In turn, that trend has diverted individuals with mental health disabilities into jails and prisons.

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The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that the US housed 1.51 million inmates at year-end 2016. Specifically, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) data suggest that about 12% of the correctional population has a history of a mental health disability. What’s more, the agency estimates that approximately 40% of the correctional population currently has some type of mental health disability, most often including bipolar disorder, major depression, or schizophrenia.

Corrections departments typically use prescription medications, restrictive housing units, and special housing units to treat these inmates. However, BOP data suggested that a mere 3% of the correctional population receives routine treatment for a mental disability. Treating these inmates, it turns out, costs roughly $15 billion per year.

But how is society at large dealing with people with mental illnesses? The increase in life expectancy and individuals with a diagnosis of such a condition at a younger age, after all, is driving prevalence rates higher.

The National Institute of Mental Health has proposed what is perhaps the newest effort to provide mental healthcare, and it’s all about tech.

Currently, mental health apps exist to track health data: physical activity, mindfulness, nutrition, and sleep among them. However, new mental health technology is growing to be more innovative by allowing individuals to manage medications, educating individuals on coping skills, and forecasting when an individual could potentially need emotional support via built-in sensors.

This new generation of care will include mobile devices for use by the general population, healthcare professionals, and investigators to assist in mental health support and data collection. Called mobile mental health support, this movement would provide beneficial resources, assisting with locating mental health help, monitoring progress, and further educating society about mental well-being.

Prevailing areas of app development consist of:

  • Self-management apps
  • Apps for improving thinking skills
  • Skill-training apps
  • Illness management, supported care
  • Passive symptom tracking
  • Data collection

Mental health technology has already been initiated through the BRIGHTEN pilot study, which focused on patients with depression. Participants were instructed to use 3 mental health apps daily and then complete monthly assessments. Investigators hoped the apps would offer a depression intervention and effectively gather data on participants’ social behavior. The research team is still evaluating the findings to determine how effective the apps were in treating depression and whether any app was more effective than the others. Despite final results not being published yet, preliminary data indicate that all 3 apps had substantial effects on mood and disability over time.

Such advances in mental health technology provide many positive advantages in combating mental health disabilities. But red flags remain, especially regarding the effectiveness of these apps. The verdict simply is not in yet.

Still, innovators hope this new wave of tech can help all individuals with all kinds of mental health conditions. Because it is still in its infancy, technology-enhanced mental health mobile technology can go in several directions. These tools might prove capable of preventing or treating certain mental health disabilities. And perhaps, with the right adoption rates, they might reduce the number of individuals with mental health conditions entering the correctional system.

Lauren Spath works in qualitative research project management for Healthcare Research & Analytics®, of which Healthcare Analytics News™ is the official publication.

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