How does social support affect the mental health of incarcerated people?

Chassay, L., & Kremer, K. P. (2022). Association between social support and mental health of incarcerated individuals. Journal of Correctional Health Care, 28(1), 47–53.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Incarcerated people experience mental health issues more frequently than the general population.
    • 56% of incarcerated people in state prisons have one or more mental illnesses.
  • This study assesses the relationship between social support and incarcerated people’s mental health.
    • More specifically, this study explores how phone calls and visitations from children affect the mental health of incarcerated people.
  • The number of visits and calls correlated with the mental health scores of incarcerated people.
  • Incarcerated individuals who have minor children had notably better mental health scores if they sent or received more mail from their children and made or received more calls from their children – this was more significant for mothers than fathers.
  • Child visitation didn’t have a significant impact on mental health scores.
  • Given the financial limitations of making phone calls and visits, supportive options need to be more accessible for families.
    • Prisons can offer incarcerated people opportunities to earn credit for making phone calls.
    • Correctional health care professionals can emphasize the mental health implications of increasing contact with families.
    • Promote policies that ensure incarcerated people are within a certain distance of their families.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Mental illness occurs more frequently in incarcerated individuals than in the general population. This study examined whether social support during incarceration is associated with improved mental health outcomes. Data were used from the 2004 Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities; the analytic sample was 3,451 incarcerated individuals. Linear regression models predicted current mental health functioning from frequency of visits and phone calls while incarcerated. Controlling for demographic characteristics, incarcerated individuals with more frequent contact from family and friends had improved mental health. Mental health functioning was particularly enhanced for individuals who received more calls and visits. Future research should explore opportunities to increase visits and phone calls during incarceration along with additional social support mechanisms that may enhance mental health.

Implications (Reprinted from the Conclusion)

Findings from this study offer a new exploration into the role of social support on mental health of incarcerated individuals. Across all individuals, the total number of calls and visits was significantly associated with mental health scores. For the subanalyses of incarcerated individuals with minor children, those who made or received more calls to/from children and sent or received more mail to/from children had significantly higher mental health scores. The relationship between mental health with calls and mail to/from children was significantly higher for mothers than for fathers.

Visits from children did not significantly enhance mental health scores. Given these findings, it appears that an increase in social support through calls, mail, and visits leads to better mental health outcomes for incarcerated individuals. This is in line with past research by Silver and Teasdale (2005), in which incarcerated individuals with mental health diagnoses were more likely to have impaired social support. Our findings are further in line with Glaze and Maruschak’s (2008) research finding heightened mental illness among incarcerated mothers.

This study builds on prior work to highlight the role of social support in strengthening mental health of incarcerated individuals. For incarcerated individuals, the increase in social support through phone calls and mail from children improved their mental health evaluation score. Present findings can help guide policy makers, prison administrators, and health care professionals to understand the role of social support on mental health outcomes. Prison administrators can particularly enhance access to phone calls and visits with family members.

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