Helping Your Inmate Stay Healthy: Mental Health

As we discussed in Part 1, helping your inmate to stay physically healthy is extremely important. It is just as important, if not more so, to help ensure your incarcerated loved one is mentally healthy. Be sure to regularly keep in touch with phone calls, visits, and letters of encouragement. This will foster a more positive outlook for your inmate and help to keep their mental health on track!

Mental Health Care Availability

Statistics have shown that there are more adults in the criminal justice system within states that have less access to mental health care. There are currently an estimated 1.2 million incarcerated individuals with mental health issues in the United States today. Trying to provide appropriate mental health care to this many people presents a challenge to prison systems nationwide.


There are organizations who are working to emphasize the importance of the emotional wellness of the inmate population. For example, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) challenges prisons at the county level to attempt to reduce the number of inmates with mental illness, encouraging them to consider appropriate treatment options rather than incarceration. Examples of other advocacy groups include: Avid Prison Project, Treatment Advocacy Center, and The PEW Charitable Trust. Many advocacy groups are state-specific, so be sure and check out any advocacy groups in your state or county for support!

Why Mental Health is so Important

Many inmates enter the prison system with mental health issues already in place. But even for those who do not, the conditions within their institutions can lead to negative emotional wellness. Facilities are typically overcrowded, which can lead to a lack of privacy. Some inmates are subjected to lengthy periods of time completely alone, which can lead to depression and a sense of hopelessness. Frequently, there are few options for inmate activities that encourage creativity or intellectual processing, further exacerbating a sense of depression. Combining the negative environment, the stress and anxiety of being in prison, and all the possible implications of the incarceration on the inmate’s future, you have a recipe for potential mental health problems.

By addressing the healthiness of your inmate on a mental and emotional level, it does more than keep him/her smiling for the day. It can help to create a better overall quality of life during the incarceration period. Having good mental health can contribute to optimal physical health as well, because they work hand in hand. Maintaining emotional and psychological wellness will not only assist your inmate in the transition back to normal life after release but will also drastically reduce their chances of returning to prison.

Options for Mental Health Care

As compared to the availability of care for inmates who are physically ill, obtaining mental health care for incarcerated loved ones can certainly be more challenging. According to a study done by the Department of Justice, only an estimated one-third of inmates in the state prison systems and one-half of federal prisoners receive appropriate mental health care.  The vast number of inmates who do not receive appropriate mental health treatment is staggering.

There are state and federal facilities and probationary detention centers that offer certain types of individual therapy and/or group therapy, along with pharmaceutical options for specific conditions. In many institutions, there are staff members who are trained to deal with alcohol and/or substance abuse issues. In some states, there are facilities specifically designated for inmates with more serious mental health issues. Your best course of action is to contact your loved one’s institution directly and inquire about the availability of therapy and/or treatment.


The Power of Positivity

There are many ways you can help to encourage your inmate and support them with any existing mental health issues:

  • Empowering: By regularly communicating with your inmate about the events happening at home, and encouraging them to give their input about decisions, you help them to develop a sense of responsibility and control. This works to downplay the helpless and powerless feelings they have.
  • Supporting: By having regular contact with your incarcerated loved one, you help them to create a sense of belonging to the outside world. This can increase their sense of hope and connection, warding off depression, and increasing their chances of success upon release. A lack of emotional and social support can cause a high stress environment, leading to the likelihood of depression and anxiety.
  • Visiting: In addition to regular phone conversations and letters, an in-person visit with your loved one is a huge deterrent for stress and hopelessness. The reduction in stress by even occasional visits not only provides an event for your inmate to look forward to but has also been shown to improve the inmate’s overall behavior while incarcerated.
  • Asking: Talk to your inmate. Ask questions. Give them the opportunity to talk about the things that are causing them stress and anxiety. Just having the ability to vent and share with someone who cares can help foster better overall mental health for your incarcerated loved one. Don’t we all get stressed sometimes? Being able to share experiences provides a comfort to your inmate not often found in the institutional setting.

Look for ways to support and encourage your inmate! Helping them to have better mental health while incarcerated will not only be good for them but will make their time away a little less worrisome and stressful for you and all their loved ones as well. Talk to them as often as you can. Ask them for their input. Show genuine interest in and concern for what they are going through. A little kindness and positivity can go a long way to help your inmate today, and in the future.

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