Racial Differences in Self-Report of Mental Illness and Mental Illness Treatment in the Community: An Analysis of Jail Intake Data

Adm Policy Ment Health. 2023 Nov;50(6):966-975. doi: 10.1007/s10488-023-01297-4. Epub 2023 Sep 21.


Jails and prisons in the United States house people with elevated rates of mental health and substance use disorders. The goal of this cross-sectional study was to evaluate the frequency of racial/ethnic differences in the self-report of mental illness and psychiatric medication use at jail entry. Our sample included individuals who had been incarcerated between 2016 and 2020 at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction, located in Billerica, MA. We used data from the "Offender Management System," the administrative database used by the jail containing data on people who are incarcerated, and COREMR, the electronic medical record (EMR) used in the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction. We evaluated two primary outcomes (1) self-reported mental illness history and (2) self-reported use of psychiatric medication, with the primary indicator of interest as race/ethnicity. At intake, over half (57%) of the sample self-reported history of mental illness and 20% reported the use of psychiatric medications. Among people who self-reported a history of mental illness, Hispanic (AOR: 0.73, 95% CI: 0.60-0.90), Black (AOR: 0.52, 95% CI: 0.43-0.64), Asian/Pacific Islander (Non-Hispanic) people (AOR: 0.31, 95% CI: 0.13-0.74), and people from other racial/ethnic groups (AOR: 0.33, 95% CI: 0.11-0.93) all had decreased odds of reporting psychiatric medications. Mental illness was reported in about one-half of people who entered jail, but only 20% reported receiving medications in the community prior to incarceration. Our findings build on the existing literature on jail-based mental illness and show racial disparities in self-report of psychiatric medications in people who self-reported mental illness. The timing, frequency, and equity of mental health services in both the community and the jail setting deserves further research, investment, and improvement.

Keywords: Ethnicity; Health disparity; Incarcerated; Jail; Mental illness; Prison; Race.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Jails
  • Mental Disorders* / therapy
  • Prisoners* / psychology
  • Race Factors
  • Self Report
  • United States