By Stacia Ray & edited by admin
The information in this article is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health condition. Always seek the advice of a qualified medical professional with any questions you may have about your health or treatment.
For some people, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration. But for others, they bring a sense of loneliness and pain – especially behind bars. Its common for prisoners to experience depression around the holidays, so its important to know the signs and learn the tools to cope.
Dr Karen Boortz, a psychologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, explains that sadness is a normal emotion that everyone experiences sometimes, usually in response to a difficult situation. Depression however, is “an abnormal state.” It makes you feel sad about everything and it doesn’t even require an outside trigger.
Signs of depression
Women with depression are more likely to experience severely low self-esteem, self-harm, anxiety, panic or eating disorders. But the normal stresses of adjusting to prison life can look like depression. So how can you tell whether you’re depressed or just a little “off”? In a nutshell, depression symptoms are abnormal and constant.
Dr Sarah Deweese, a psychologist at San Quentin Prison, says if the things that usually make you happy, no longer cheer you up, that might be a sign. “Look for clues that something doesn’t feel right, that you’re not yourself,” says Deweese. Pay attention if others seem concerned about your state of mind, because depression can distort your sense of reality and make it hard for you to realise that something is wrong.
Other symptoms of depression include: Lack of interest (feeling detached or numb); major change in weight or appetite; trouble sleeping or sleeping too much; fatigue or agitation; feelings of worthlessness or shame; trouble concentrating or thinking straight; and thoughts of dying or suicide. Physical symptoms may include headaches, body aches, and digestive problems.
Reasons for Prison Depression
The largest factor leading to depression behind bars, Boortz says, is the separation from family, friends and community, a factor that gets even harder during the holidays. Deweese points out that we’re designed to be social creatures. “The holidays are a reminder that the family system, the bond with people you’re accustomed to being around, has been broken, so it makes sense that prisoners would feel a loss,” she says.
Dr. Lisa Herman, PsyD, LP, a psychologist, adds that things we see on TV or hear on the radio can also make the holidays harder. “There are so many commercials on TV showing happy, ‘perfect’ families, and traditionally the holidays are a time of the year focussed on family togetherness,” so when you don’t have that because you are in prison, away form family, “you can feel very alone.”
Other factors that can make depression worse include the lack of privacy, the constant noise, too much downtime and less access to support. Symptoms can be more severe during these winter holidays because the days are shorter and darker.
Ways to Cope
Ready for some good news? There are self-care tools that you can use when dealing with depression behind bars. Even if you’re not clinically depressed, these tips can help you get through a tough time.
- Get the right sleep. Depression might have you up all night or sleeping all day. Going to bed at a decent hour and getting out of bed during the day can help improve your mood.
- Eat well and exercise, outside if possible. Be kind to your brain and your body. Stay away from mood-altering substances (including caffeine), which can make things worse. Take a walk in the fresh air; sunshine can boost your mood.
- Meditate. Deweese suggests reading and doing relaxing meditations (and even mini-meditations where you focus on your breathing, feel your heart and count your heartbeats for 30 seconds). Creative outlets like playing music or journaling can help too.
- Set a goal. Find a daily activity like memorizing a chapter of the bible, or walking a certain distance everyday; start small (even as simple as doing 10 jumping jacks) and slowly increase the task when ready. Meeting a goal can help fight the feelings of worthlessness.
- Connect. Isolation tends to make depression worse. If you can, connect with others who are going through the same thing. “Creating a makeshift family and talking with supportive fellow prisoners can help you feel much better,” Deweese says, Join an educational program or religious group. Turning to Jesus by praying and reading scripture can bring comfort, but its important to note that you can be a Christian and still struggle with depression.
- Go easy on yourself. Use extra kindness towards yourself and others, remembering this time and these feelings – will pass.
Depression is not about weakness. “The brain is an organ, and just like any other body part is susceptible to illness or imbalance, so is our brain,” says Deweese. “And just like theres no shame in seeing a doctor if you need a cast on your leg, theres no shame in getting extra help if you’re depressed.