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Mental Health and Addiction Among Inmates

mental health and addiction among inmatesWorking with offenders allows you to see many interesting phenomena. Not only do you get to observe interesting behaviors and get a glimpse inside the thinking patterns of criminals, but there are interesting sociological observations as well. One of which is how life inside the walls mirror what is going on in society; cultural diversity, violence, drug use, etc.

While there is nothing new about drug use inside prisons, a new and interesting occurrence seems to be taking place. It would appear that much of the drug\alcohol use may be attributable to the inmates engaging in self-medication to treat known (or undiagnosed) mental illness.

It has long been known that the majority of inmates have some kind of substance abuse problem. In fact, according to the Correctional Services of Canada, it has beed estimated that approximately 70 % of federal inmates have a reported substance abuse problem. In the past decade, many resources have been allocated to treat these addictions through various programs. From preventive programs (drug detectors, drug sniffing dogs, searches) to treatment programs (methadone, pharmaceutical, cognitive-behavioral, etc.) to maintenance programs, have all given similar results.

Criminologists around the world agree that there is a strong relationship between crime and drug use. Not only are crimes often committed by offenders that are under the influence of drugs, but that many crimes are committed in order to find money to pay for drugs. It is for this reason that treating and preventing addiction have been a priority for Corrections and society as a whole.

In the last few years, talking about mental health issues has been made easier through much desensitization from the media and health care professionals. Epidemiologists are now realizing that the occurrences of mental health issues is much more wide spread than once believed. An interesting observation in the world of Corrections has been that a significant amount of inmates with addictions also suffer from undiagnosed mental health issues.

We will examine this occurrence through two disorders that are frequently diagnosed amongst incarcerated individuals: ADHD and Anxiety.

ADHD has been the topic of many discussions within the health care system for some time now. It is not surprising then, that the rates of offenders diagnosed with ADHD have also risen quite substantially over the years. Among substance abusers having an undiagnosed ADHD, cocaine, alcohol, and marijuana have traditionally been their drugs of choice. It has been estimated that adults with ADHD are actually three times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem compared to adults that do not have ADHD.

By taking these illicit substances, they are essentially trying to regain focus by blocking out extraneous stimulation. It is interesting to note that cocaine has similar properties found in methylphenidate, which is often prescribed for the treatment of ADHD. With alcohol and marijuana, the desired effects of its use are to diminish feelings of irritability, anxiety, depression, insomnia and mood swings that are often associated to ADHD.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada, recognizes that anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental illness affecting Canadian adults. The 12 month prevalence for any anxiety disorder is over 12% and one in four Canadians will have at least one anxiety disorder in their lifetime. It is worth noting that incarcerated individuals actually have a higher prevalence of anxiety disorders than of the general population. Of theses inmates whom have often not been officially diagnosed until they enter the penal system, also have drug and alcohol problems.

For these offenders, much like those suffering from ADHD, the drugs (marijuana, alcohol, marijuana, etc.) are a way to escape the adverse symptoms of anxiety (irritability, nervousness, panic, etc.).

Once the offenders that have been properly diagnosed, it becomes much easier to offer the treatment option that best corresponds to their needs.

Much like their counterparts outside prison walls, the stigma attached to mental health issues must continue to be challenged by all members of society in order to be able to openly talk about, properly diagnose and treat such disorders. By doing so, it will have a protective effect against illicit drug use thus also having a positive impact on crime prevention.

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Mental Health and Addiction Among Inmates

Ron Forte

Ron ForteRon Forte is a Positive Psychology Life Coach who lives and works in Montreal (Quebec). He teaches people about emotions management and zen living. One subset of his many clients is an interesting group: people on parole, learning proven methods to change their outcomes. He is currently writing a book about how positive psychology can make a life-changing difference in the lives of formerly violent offenders. For more information visit or follow him on Twitter or

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APA Reference
, R. (2018). Mental Health and Addiction Among Inmates. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 3 Sep 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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