By Meg Huntly

The focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness, of which the impact on physical and mental health has been the subject of more and more open discussion over the past few years. The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened these conversations, but for individuals imprisoned across the world, feelings of loneliness and despair are sadly all too familiar.

Extreme stress is a major part of the lives of all of us in prison. Unlike outside, we cannot walk away from unpleasant people and situations. Getting ill in prison is miserable enough, but with a mental health issue, life can feel totally pointless. You can easily imagine never being able to get better.

The lack of physical contact, separation from family and friends, and a hostile environment makes time spent in prison anywhere an incredibly isolating experience. For British nationals detained abroad in foreign prisons, however, there is often a language barrier that adds an additional layer of loneliness, with many of our service users unable to communicate on even a basic level with fellow prisoners and prison officials alike. Chief Executive of The Mental Health Foundation, Mark Rowland, writes that “loneliness is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want” and that “the length of time we experience loneliness is so vital to its effect on our mental health.” For many British prisoners, it can be crippling to know that their sentence is stretching out before them with no way to converse with those around them.

It is no surprise that the harsh conditions and lack of basic necessities in many foreign prisons take a toll on prisoners’ physical wellbeing, but this in turn can severely impact many prisoners’ mental wellbeing too. Constant worries about lack of food and clean water, cramped living conditions, and the implications this has on physical health – all in institutions where medical care is not easily accessible or freely available – can very quickly be compounded into a serious mental health disorder. “It is not a personal weakness or failing or inability to cope. It is an unfortunate nervous overreaction to an extremely stressful environment over which we have no control,” one prisoner writes, going onto describe anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and panic attacks as very common for many prisoners. Coupled with the isolation of prison, where there is no support system of loved ones to help ease these fears, it is all too easy to see how a prisoner’s mental health can spiral. The mental health charity Mind describes this vicious circle of emotions: “feeling lonely isn't in itself a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. Having a mental health problem can increase your chance of feeling lonely [but] feeling lonely can also have a negative impact on your mental health.”

To combat loneliness, Mind suggests things such as peer support, finding new connections, and trying to open up to friends and family. Similarly, in the Mental Health Foundation’s guide to looking after your mental health, they write that “if things are getting too much for you and you feel you can’t cope, ask for help. Your family or friends may be able to offer practical help or a listening ear. Local services are there to help you.” These are excellent tips for day-to-day mental health care, but the realities of the situation for British citizens imprisoned abroad mean it may feel impossible to attempt these changes. 

Prisoners Abroad do, however, make every effort to stem the loneliness and isolation felt by British prisoners across the world and to fight back against the impact of prison on our service users’ mental health. Amongst other initiatives, we send language materials, like phrase books and dictionaries, to enable prisoners to talk more easily, providing some respite in what may otherwise be a sentence of silence. Prisoners Abroad also provide freepost envelopes to encourage those we support to keep in contact with loved ones. Having a connection to home can be key to battling loneliness whilst detained, providing those all-important social connections, as well as a reminder of the relationships they hold outside of the world of prison.

Other prisoners have described how creative outlets such as writing and drawing helped them to fight the loneliness of time in prison – and at times gave them a way to talk about their darker feelings in ways they wouldn’t otherwise be able. Jane says: “I travelled in my mind to faraway places and happier times when I wrote a story. Even scribbling my angst and anger onto a piece of paper helped me make sense of my situation and sometimes just knowing that I was in the middle of making something was the only incentive that got me out of bed in the mornings. In short doing something creative when the rest of my life had become so unproductive kept me going.” You can read more about Jane’s time in prison and her work with the Koestler Arts annual exhibition in her blog post here and see a selection of poems and drawings created by service users in each of our newsletters.

Our caseworkers will also advise the prisoners we support to seek medical advice where possible and to contact consular staff or Prisoners Abroad if they need help accessing medical assistance. For many prisoners, just knowing that they have someone on their side, fighting their corner and helping to get them the care they need, can counter some of the loneliness they may feel.

I cried from shock and sheer desperation. There was an organisation who cared about me? No one else cared about me anymore, so the effect this had on me was immense. This contact gave me the hope and confidence to start looking forward.

The emotional support provided by Prisoners Abroad doesn’t end when a prisoner’s sentence finishes, just as, for many of our service users, the stress and anxiety of imprisonment doesn’t end when they leave the prison; on returning to the UK, everything from buying food and necessities, using a mobile phone, and finding housing and work or access to benefits can all feel unfamiliar and overwhelming. In fact, many of our service users would be at risk of homelessness without the resettlement support provided by Prisoners Abroad. One prisoner describes the effects of deportation on their mental health: “I didn’t know how to feel. I was getting my freedom back, but I was losing everything; it was almost like I was paying the price for my freedom.” For some, deportation means arriving in a country they have not lived in for many years – perhaps even decades. Adjusting to a very different life outside of prison with no support system or loved ones close by is an incredibly isolating experience, often bringing along feelings of anger, loss and sadness in addition to loneliness. In fact, many of our service users report an increase in mental health problems after release.

Our resettlement officers work with service users at every stage of the process, preparing them in the weeks and months prior to deportation, supporting them on arrival back in the UK by finding temporary housing and providing vouchers for food and travel, and helping them to navigate the complexities of the UK benefits system. Later, we can assist with CV writing and give advice on finding work. Crucially, Prisoners Abroad also provides support groups for individuals going through the resettlement process at all stages. This gives individuals a chance to speak with others experiencing the same challenges, which can be vital to curbing the loneliness felt by many and boost their mental health. Anne writes that “it’s hard making friends when you don’t know anyone in the country, but it’s a common ground at Prisoners Abroad as many people are going through the same thing.”

You can find out more about the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week, running from 9-15th May, and ways in which you can help tackle the epidemic of loneliness via their website. If you would like to learn more about supporting the mental health of British citizens imprisoned abroad this Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond, please get in touch or visit our ‘Volunteering Opportunities' page.