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Using telehealth technology to provide mental health counseling for inmates

County commissioners approve a yearlong contract with Texas A&M that brings mental health counseling to Washington County Jail inmates
Washington County Jail_A woman sits at a table and speaks to a man on a television

With more than 10 million individuals in prison at any given time and more than 30 million circulating through each year, the inmate population represents a large part of our communities. Furthermore, jail inmates and prisoners have elevated rates of mental health disorders.

Roughly 27 percent of state and federal prisoners have been told by a mental health provider that they have a mental health disorder, and many do not receive the therapies in jail that they need to manage it. “With the physical barriers that come with residing in prison as well as the tight budgets of many Texas counties, mental health is often not a priority in our jails and prisons,” said Carly McCord, PhD, director of Telebehavioral Care at the Texas A&M University Health Science Center (Texas A&M Health), clinical assistant professor in the Texas A&M College of Medicine and Texas A&M College of Education and Human Development. “The beauty of telehealth through the Texas A&M Health Telebehavioral Care program is that we can transcend those physical and financial barriers to bring mental health to our Texas inmates.”

The power of telebehavioral care

For the past 10 years, Texas A&M Telebehavioral Care has brought health care to rural populations in need of mental health care through telehealth technology. Doctoral students in counseling and school psychology from the College of Education and Human Development work in the clinic under the supervision of licensed psychologists, counseling those who would otherwise not receive such services. Now, the clinic has expanded its scope of impact into the prisons.

Telehealth uses technology for direct service or as an adjunct to health care services. For example, video conferencing, wireless communications, remote data collection and image streaming through the service allows health care professionals to reach patients who cannot make it to a clinic. “Distance, lack of transportation, cost and a lack of providers are all mitigated by telehealth,” McCord said. “That being said, telehealth is a great solution for bringing health care to our correctional facilities.”

The collaboration with Washington County Jail

To help kick off their newest decade of telebehavioral services, the clinic signed a contract with Washington County Jail. The contract will allow them to provide mental health counseling to the inmates, and it will only cost the county $28,000 in total. Washington County Jail Administrator Eric Hensley says it will ultimately cost the taxpayers less money because the inmates are getting the help they need, which can help them to stay out of jail in the future.

Washington County is the first to fund access to telebehavioral care services in the jail and in the community. This means individuals released from jail will be able to easily schedule follow-up appointments at the clinic’s Washington County access point, so they can continue their counseling once they are released from prison.

“This program will do great things for the inmates,” said Isaac Saldivar, PhD, a psychologist at the clinic. “We finished a three-month trial period to test out the group and individual counseling with the jail and we already noticed improvements with the inmates. We also noticed a gain of trust and an overall increase of interest in the program.” Saldivar meets with the inmates on a weekly basis via a secure, HIPPA-protected video platform. He counsels on issues such as anger management, depression anxiety and trauma.

 “Telebehavioral care is more than a solution to the limited access to mental health care in rural Texas,” McCord said. “It is a solution that can be applied everywhere. We are looking forward to watching the initiative grow.”

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