By the Mental Health Foundation

We published this article in the newsletter we send to prisoners worldwide, and thought as supporters, you would also find it interesting to read.

The article was originally written for male prisoners in the UK, so we have adapted where possible to make it more inclusive and include practical advice that is not reliant to specific services or resources. We know people are in prison abroad in a wide variety of circumstances and not all of the suggestions are going to be relevant or possible to achieve, but we wanted you to be able to use the article as a guide to help you reflect on your situation, your emotional response to it, and maybe how it has affected your mental health. Part 2 of this article will be published soon as this is part of a short series, and it will feature relaxation techniques, making plans, keeping in contact, positive relationships and helping others.

Being in prison can be a very difficult experience. The environment, the rules and regulations and lack of personal control can all have an impact on your mental health. In general, people in prison have a higher chance of developing poor mental health. Older prisoners, those with a physical or learning disability, and other vulnerable groups are especially at risk of experiencing poor mental health whilst in prison. This article is about ways to look after your mental health in a prison setting.

I also had to understand and accept that I was in prison because of my own actions and consequences. The consequence was a prison sentence. Yet, even though I am a prisoner, I can still achieve and make a success of my life.

Mental health is about the way you think and feel and your ability to deal with ups and downs. Looking after your mental health in prison can help you:

  • Cope better with life in the prison environment;
  • Make positive changes to improve your well-being;
  • Build better support networks with family, other inmates and professionals who can help.

Everyone’s mental health fluctuates. We all have times when we feel down, stressed or frightened. Most of the time these feelings pass, but sometimes they develop into a more serious problem. Self-harm is a serious problem in prison. If you are having suicidal thoughts, or feel like you might harm yourself intentionally, talk to someone about the way you feel. The prison where you are detained may not have a social worker or medical staff to talk to, but you can contact consular staff, or write to us (or call us if possible) at Prisoners Abroad.

Jail can be scary, the unfamiliar surroundings, the loud noises, a routine that revolves around time...

Tip 1: Take care of yourself

When people feel sad or depressed they can neglect themselves. Keeping regular hygiene routines such as washing, shaving, wearing clean clothes is often the first thing to go when we are struggling with our mental health. Prisoners tell us that it’s hard to get motivated to take care of their appearance when they feel low. Being unkempt and uncared for can affect how other people think of us and lead to an even stronger sense of isolation. We appreciate that this is not always possible in some countries, but building a regular hygiene routine can help bring consistency to life in a prison environment. Showering and shaving as regularly as you can are simple goals that make a big difference to our self-esteem. These can go a long way to protecting ourselves from being overwhelmed by poor mental health. Even small acts like washing your face may help you feel like you are taking care of your appearance.
The same thing goes for your diet. A diet that’s good for your physical health is also good for your mental health. Choosing what you eat may be one of the few things that you have control over in prison. Again, healthy food may not be easy to access where you are, but, where possible:

  • Eat three regular meals a day even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing;
  • Drink water;
  • Where possible, include fruit and vegetables in your diet.

Tip 2: A problem shared is a problem halved

Asking for support and help in a new situation is not a sign of weakness. Finding out about routines, rules and what’s available to make life easier in prison is very important for your well-being. Talking about personal thoughts and feelings isn’t easy. Prisoners tell us that finding someone they trust to talk to can be difficult. Talking about feelings can be hard so it may be useful to plan what you want to say in advance. Talking can be a way to cope with a problem you have been carrying in your head for a while. Talking to someone who is experiencing the same situation can help you to feel less isolated and feeling listened to can help you feel more supported.

Tip 3: Get active

Regular physical activity and exercise can help your physical and mental health. Researchers have found that even moderate exercise in a prison setting has a positive effect on mental health and is effective in reducing the risk of depression. If your prison has a gym or exercise facilities, make the most of them. It doesn’t have to be sports-related exercise though – it could be walking or an activity such as gardening. Anything that gets you moving can make you feel better. Sometimes prisoners have to spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells, so learning individual exercises that can be carried out in limited spaces can be helpful. Set yourself achievable goals such as getting a little fitter or losing some weight. Working towards goals can help you to focus and achieving them can help to improve your self-esteem.

Tip 4: Learn something new

The one thing that prisoners have is time. This time can be taken up with worry or feeling angry. It can also provide the opportunity to learn a new skill or develop an interest. Learning can help build confidence and a sense of self-worth. Learning can be good for our wellbeing, especially when it’s something that you want to do and comes at a stage when you are ready to benefit from it. There may be more opportunities to learn new skills in prison than you might expect. This might be cooking or gardening. In a recent newsletter, Steven in Spain wrote about how he had taught himself to draw portraits with just pencil and paper. You could also improve reading or writing and gain some qualifications. Many overseas prisons offer language classes for foreign nationals, and Prisoners Abroad can provide language dictionaries and learning materials. Learning something new or developing a skill can take you away from your current surroundings. This can have a positive impact on your mental health.

Tip 5: Think more positively

In difficult situations, your thoughts are more likely to be negative. This can lead to feeling anxious, guilty or angry. This negative thinking can become habitual, particularly when life is challenging. Over time this can lead to depression or become a barrier to making changes and improvements to our lives.

It’s important to challenge negative thoughts to maintain our mental health. Developing a more positive thinking habit takes time but can make a difference to the way you feel and behave.

Become more self-aware

Try to identify and understand where the negative thoughts come from. This might be directly from being in prison but it is also likely that they are a result of past experiences.

Become more self-disciplined

Be aware of when you have negative thoughts and how they impact on you. Try to make a positive decision to make a change to improve things.

Reframe things in a more positive way

Positive statements can encourage us to cope in difficult circumstances. Try to build up a list of positive phrases that you can use. Here are some ideas from other prisoners:
I am worth more than I think;
I have survived before, I will survive now;
There is always a point;
I can learn from this;
I can laugh;
I don’t need to rush, I can take things slowly.

Become more focused on solutions

When things get difficult, it’s helpful to focus on the solution and not the problem. Be aware that there are some things you can control and some things you can’t. Try not to focus too much on the things that you have no control over. An example one prisoner gave was that rather than getting upset by a lockdown preventing him from going to the gym, he used the time to do a workout in his cell instead.

Thank you to The Mental Health Foundation for this article. The Mental Health Foundation is a UK charity whose mission is to help people understand, protect and sustain their mental health.