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Mental Illness a Frequent Cell Mate for Those Behind Bars
Date:4/6/2013

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, April 5 (HealthDay News) -- Eugene King ran away from home at the age of 16, the start of a lifelong pattern of drug abuse, crime and incarceration.

In retrospect, King said, he realizes he was using illicit drugs at least in part to self-medicate a variety of psychiatric conditions. But he also realizes that prison, with its lack of adequate medical treatment and what he called a generally abusive environment, only made his problems worse.

"It exacerbated [the mental illness] without a doubt," said King, now 62.

That King's mental health, already precarious, only worsened in prison is not an unusual story.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the link between prison time and mental illness is a two-way street. Although many incarcerated people exhibit such problems as impulse control disorders -- which normally first appear in childhood or adolescence -- before they enter the correctional system, incarceration itself seems to cause major depression.

And this may help explain why so many inmates have trouble re-entering society when they are released, said the authors of the study.

"Prison made them depressed and that depression undermined their ability to re-enter -- made it hard to find a job, hard to be motivated -- and this is precisely the time they need to be motivated," said lead author Jason Schnittker, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "We think that mood disorders are an important barrier to re-entry."

According to background information included in the study, about 16 million people -- or 7.5 percent of the U.S. population -- are felons or ex-felons.

Meanwhile, people in prison have up to six times the rate of significant mental illness as the general population, said Dr. Spencer Eth, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science
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