Prisoners at Higher Risk for PTSD

hands on bars

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has been found by researchers to be more common in male inmates than in the general population. Using data collected from a survey, the researchers found that being incarcerated nearly doubles the risk that a man will suffer from this devastating condition. Few studies have looked into this issue, but knowing that there is a connection between incarceration and PTSD has important implications for prevention and treatment.

Inmates More Likely to Have PTSD

We tend to think of military personnel returning from deployment as those among us suffering most from PTSD, but anyone can develop the disorder. All it takes is a traumatic event or series of events, and it isn’t hard to imagine that life in prison has its share of trauma. The current research comes from psychologists at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM). They found a connection between PTSD and prison by going through the results of a survey called the National Survey of American Life.

The survey asked questions of Americans from all regions and focused on mental health issues. African Americans surveyed were also asked about incarceration, so the study results represent only this racial group. (Unfortunately, the researchers said, they didn’t have access to incarceration questions for other groups.) The survey questions regarding PTSD and prison time were simple and straightforward. Respondents were asked if they had ever been diagnosed with PTSD and if they had been incarcerated. There were no details about the severity of the disorder, experiences in prison or other important factors that could have an impact on the analysis of the results.

What the researchers found, even with just these simple survey responses, was that the African American men who had been incarcerated were two times as likely as those who had never been to prison to have PTSD. Thirteen percent of the men with PTSD had been in prison, while less than 8% who had never been incarcerated struggled with the disorder.

Prison and Trauma

The research from UWM is not the only time this connection between prison and trauma has been made. The research is thin, but a few other studies found that there is a higher prevalence of PTSD in prison populations than in the general population. Most of the research, including the most recent study, can’t exactly pinpoint the causes of PTSD in this population. It could be that people with PTSD are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated or that prison time directly leads to the development of PTSD, or both.

In one study, researchers did find concrete causes of PTSD in a prison population. They found that prisoners were more likely to have PTSD and that there were common incidents reported by prisoners that acted as triggers for the disorder. These included being physically assaulted, being sexually assaulted or witnessing someone being killed or seriously injured.

Understanding the connection between PTSD and incarceration is important for several reasons. Knowing that men in prison are at greater risk for the disorder provides experts and healthcare professionals a chance to intervene, prevent and treat prisoners. PTSD is a devastating and life-changing disorder when left untreated. It is associated with unemployment, suicide, domestic violence, assaults, substance abuse and other mental health issues. However, there are good and effective treatment options for PTSD, and if these treatments can be given to the most vulnerable populations, many people will have better outcomes.

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