Can mHealth Fix the Mental Health Problem in U.S. Prisons?

June 21, 2018 - 4 minutes read

Mental health disabilities are becoming more prevalent in the United States correctional system. Overwhelmed by this growing problem, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is turning to mHealth app development for help.

Current efforts are showing promising results, but will they be enough?

A Costly Conundrum

Approximately 1.51 million inmates were housed in U.S. prisons at the end of 2016, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) estimates that about 12% of this population has a history of mental health issues. It also reports that roughly 40% of the correctional population has a mental health disability right now.

It’s not uncommon to hear correctional facilities being called the “new psychiatric asylums.” Per the National Research Institute Analytics Improving Behavioral Health, there has been a decrease of over 500,000 occupied beds in state-run mental health facilities. Concurrently, there’s been an increase of people afflicted with mental health issues such as schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder in the prison system.

While correctional facilities do employ special housing units and prescription drugs to treat inmates with mental disabilities, the BOP estimates that only 3% of the prison population receives any kind of routine treatment for mental maladies. Treating inmates with mental disorders costs about $15 billion per year. And since both life expectancy and the number of people being diagnosed with these conditions is growing, these figures are expected to balloon in the coming years.

Turning to Technology

In recent years, an abundance of health apps from tech hubs like San Francisco and New York have sprung up in app stores. They offer an array of capabilities, like tracking nutrition, sleep, physical fitness, and mindfulness. Mental health apps, in particular, are allowing users to manage illnesses in innovative ways, like scheduling medication, educating loved ones on best practices and coping skills, and, with the help of sensors, even predicting when someone may need emotional support.

The NIMH is looking to tap into these technologies in a movement called mobile mental health support. Particularly, they are interested in how these apps can help with supported care, self-management, data collection, and passive symptom tracking. The NIMH believes the technology could greatly help with monitoring, locating mental well-being support, and even educating society about mental health.

The Results so Far

Currently, an initial trial, known as the BRIGHTEN pilot study, is focusing on the effects that mobile apps have on patients suffering from depression. Mental health technology has already been initiated through the BRIGHTEN pilot study, which focused on patients with depression. Participants in this study regularly utilize three mental health apps and complete assessments every month.

The final results are still being evaluated, but early data shows that all three apps being used are having strong positive effects on the participants over time. Still, it’s too early to say for sure if these mental health apps objectively help patients.

Many proponents of these apps hope that these technologies are not only effective in treating mental health issues but could possibly prevent them from occurring in the first place. In turn, hopefully, they help reduce the influx of individuals with mental problems entering the prison system.

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