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Mental Illness and Inmates: What You Should Know

Master’s programs in clinical mental health counseling provide the foundation for career roles that address the needs of the incarcerated.

In the United States, clients of the three largest mental health care providers live behind bars, in jails in Los Angeles County, California; Cook County, Illinois; and on Rikers Island in New York City. 1


“We lock up people with mental health problems when we should really be treating these people in the community,” Thomas Fagan, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons administrator, told Monitor on Psychology. “In the absence of that, prisons and jails become de facto treatment centers.”2

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates that 44% of jail inmates and 37% of prisoners previously have received mental health diagnoses.3 (According to the DOJ, the distinction between jail inmates and prisoners is that jail inmates have a sentence of less than one year, or are being held awaiting a trail, sentencing, or transfer to other facilities. Prisoners are those serving time in state- or federally owned facilities for terms longer than one year.) 4

Mental health professionals are working within the U.S. correctional system to address these diverse needs, many of which are highlighted in a 2017 special report from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Here are some of that report’s key data points:3

  • At the time of the survey, approximately one-third of prisoners and jail inmates were receiving treatment for a diagnosed mental health condition.
  • 26% of jail inmates and 14% of prisoners met the threshold for serious psychological distress (SPD) in the 30 days prior to being interviewed.
  • Prisoners and jail inmates were three to five times as likely to have met the SPD threshold than adults in the general U.S. population.
  • 31% of jail inmates and 24% of prisoners said they’d previously experienced a major depressive disorder. The second most common diagnosis received by individuals in both groups was bipolar disorder.
  • Prescription medication was the most common treatment for prisoners and jail inmates meeting the SPD threshold in the 30 days prior to the survey.
  • 14% of prisoners and 10% of jail inmates who met the SPD threshold in the 30 days prior to the survey had been written up for or charged with assault.
  • 20% of female prisoners met the SPD threshold in the previous 30 days, compared to 14% of male prisoners.
  • More white prisoners and jail inmates met the SPD threshold in the previous 30 days than their black or Hispanic counterparts.

Move Into a Career in Counseling

If you’re interested in addressing the mental health needs of incarcerated individuals, an MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling can lay the foundation for your endeavors. Clinical mental health counseling online programs can prepare you for roles in correctional facilities, the justice system, community mental health centers, and many other professional settings.

In the online clinical mental health master’s program at Walden University, an innovative leader in distance education, you may opt for the general program or one of five specializations: Forensic Counseling; Addiction Counseling; Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling; Military Families and Culture; and Trauma and Crisis Counseling.

In the Forensic Counseling specialization, you’ll build knowledge in mental health law. You’ll enhance your conflict management and negotiation skills and learn how to apply them to resolve conflicts in the criminal justice system. And upon completing this specialization, you’ll be prepared to pursue certification and licensure as a professional counselor with additional training in forensics.

When you choose an online mental health degree from Walden, you’re preparing yourself for a field with much faster than average job growth. Between 2018–2028, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors will grow by 68,500 jobs.5 According to the BLS, this growth will include opportunities for drug and alcohol counselors and a wide variety of other mental health professionals.

Position yourself for that growth—and a rewarding future—with a degree in counseling. And let your knowledge and compassion brighten the futures of the clients in your chosen field.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,