Mental Health Effects Facing Recently Released Prisoners

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Leaving prison isn’t as simple as walking out the door and returning to the life you had before. For many, jobs have been lost, relationships have been harmed, and living situations have changed. You may not have a social network, financial support, insurance, or the resources needed to secure a job, find a home, meet with a therapist, or reconnect with the community.

Former inmates face numerous psychological challenges when released from prison, including stigma, discrimination, isolation, and instability. This can lead to devastating outcomes, like failed relationships, homelessness, substance misuse, recidivism, overdose, and suicide.

Without a support system and the resources needed to reintegrate back into the community, recently released prisoners will experience harmful mental health effects.

The Transition Out of Prison

A study conducted in Washington State found that former inmates have a higher risk of death than the general population, especially within the first few weeks of leaving prison, with drug overdose and suicide among the leading causes.

Being released from prison can be just as stressful as entering prison.

Upon release, you lose your health insurance. Depending on where you live and what convictions you received, you lose certain rights, such as voting, obtaining a driver’s license, traveling abroad, and securing custody of your children. Some employers can refuse to hire you, too.

This, in addition to personal hardships and the stigma of having been incarcerated, makes it challenging for former inmates to reintegrate into the community, achieve financial stability, access proper health care, and foster healthy relationships, which inevitably harms their overall health and well-being.

For many, the painful experiences of incarceration are hard to forget, too, and can have lasting mental health effects. You may have endured solitary confinement, abuse, deprivation, harsh living conditions, and elevated levels of stress and anxiety. You may have also adapted to life inside prison, adjusting your schedule, routines, and behaviors to fit the norms, which suddenly change upon your release.

No matter your situation, adjusting to life after prison is difficult and requires ongoing support.

Some of the most common mental health conditions faced by recently released prisoners include:

Relationship conflicts, unemployment, and substance use behaviors are among the most common factors contributing to poor mental health in former inmates. To avoid these problems, recently released prisoners need formal guidance on accessing social services, getting connected to the mental health system, and re-engaging with the community as formerly incarcerated individuals. 

The Connection Between Incarceration and Mental Health

From arrest to release, we fail to properly address the mental health of offenders and prisoners, many of whom have a history of mental illness and have never received the proper care or treatment. While some receive treatment in prison, the care ceases as soon as the prisoner is released, which can cause immediate harm.

Mental illness also raises an individual’s risk of recidivism or a relapse into criminal behavior. Those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, such as alcohol and drug use disorders, personality disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or schizophrenia disorders, face a higher risk of reoffending and committing violent offenses upon release than those without diagnoses.

Leaving prison without guidance, referrals, or local connections will be difficult for anyone, but especially those battling a pre-existing mental health condition. Symptoms of disorders or illnesses will become exasperated if untreated, especially if life circumstances become challenging.

A former inmate who is homeless and unemployed, for instance, may be preoccupied with obtaining food, housing, and work, and unintentionally neglecting their mental health, which may be declining and affecting their ability to maintain relationships, interview, apply for housing assistance or connect to prevalent services. This, in turn, accelerates their mental health problems and raises their risk of recidivism.

“The biggest problem is the criminal justice system, and the mental health system are not closely aligned,” says Robert Morgan, PhD, chair and John G. Skelton Jr. regents endowed professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Texas Tech University. “We need to teach [former inmates] system management and how to cope. We need to teach them about their mental illness and make sure that they know once they leave, they need to reconnect with the mental health system.”

More than 600,000 state and federal prisoners are released every year in the United States, and more than two-thirds are rearrested within three years of their release.

How many are guided through the process of reintegration and connected to the right mental health and social services?

While programs and interventions are erupting around the country that aim to align the siloed systems better, reduce recidivism rates, and address the needs of former inmates, challenges still exist. 

Problems Reintegrating Back Into Society 

Without legislative changes, federal programs, or criminal justice interventions, thousands of individuals are released every year without proper care. This exacerbates existing mental health problems, raises the rate of recidivism, and puts many former inmates in harm’s way.

Challenges facing recently released prisoners include, but are not limited to:

Gaps in Treatment

As soon as inmates leave prison, they lose their healthcare coverage, leading to gaps in care and treatment. For those taking medication, prescription renewal may no longer be possible without insurance. While healthcare coverage is available following release, former inmates must apply and secure a plan themselves, which isn’t always easy, especially if they don’t have access to a smartphone or computer.

Finding a suitable mental health professional and undergoing diagnosis and treatment is an additional challenge, which requires time, knowledge, money, and the willingness to get help. 

Lack of Support

Not everyone in prison has a support system on the outside, and even those who do may not have the support they need to manage their mental health properly. Those with severe mental health conditions may not understand their own condition or how to treat it, let alone identify the right resources for getting help.

Providing former inmates with guidelines, referrals, and post-prison support is critical to protecting their mental health during reentry. 

Stigma

Generally speaking, when you leave the prison system, you’re on your own. As a country, we offer protections to incarcerated individuals, who are considered a vulnerable population, but we don’t usually extend those protections to formerly incarcerated individuals.

And the stigma of having a criminal record can impact every aspect of your life. This, combined with the stigma surrounding mental health, is detrimental. To improve post-release outcomes and prevent reentry, we must work, as a society, to mitigate the effects of stigma.

Challenging Life Circumstances

Depending on how long you served, you may not understand social norms or expectations, let alone how to apply for a job or build a social network. You may also find yourself back in the same neighborhood where you offended, which can harm your mental health in a magnitude of ways. If you live in a high-crime area, you could witness violence, face an increased risk of death, and experience unexpected triggers.

Other barriers exist, too, such as job insecurity and housing instability. For example, to apply for a job, you need to qualify with the proper skills or educational requirements, which you may not have. You need access to transportation and interview attire to interview for a job, which you may not have.

For some, these hardships are compiled with food insecurity, mental illness, and financial strain, making it that much harder to avoid reoffending. 

Managing Relationships

Incarceration changes a family dynamic, and reconnecting with loved ones will be a challenge for former inmates. More than half of incarcerated adults in the United States have children, 55% of which are minors.

Even if they maintained contact throughout the sentence, former inmates might experience feelings of shame, having neglected their child and having lost years with them. You may have also lost your children to the foster system and need legal support to reconnect with them.

Those in intimate partnerships also face hardships, such as the increased risk of divorce. If your relationship survives incarceration, the dynamic likely won't be the same. You may no longer know your place in the family, how to handle the addition of new people in your loved ones’ lives, or how to establish new expectations.

You may also feel the pressure to secure a job and provide for your loved ones but lack the resources, education, or skills to do so, which puts pressure on the relationship and adds stress and anxiety to your life.

The Path to Rehabilitation

Policy changes, criminal justice reform, and reentry programs must be established to ensure that recently released prisoners stay out of prison and stay mentally healthy while ensuring they get access to the services they need. 

The transition from prison to rehabilitation will require an ongoing change from a national, state, and local level. While many service providers offer halfway housing, work-release programs, and case management, the healthcare and prison systems need to work more closely to support former inmates.

If we want former inmates to thrive, Dr. Morgan says, we cannot ostracize them. When they become functioning community members, they are more likely to contribute and less likely to re-offend. Additionally, we must make it easier for former inmates to participate in community-wide activities that promote healthy behaviors.

A Word From Verywell

Reentry won’t be easy, but you can thrive outside of prison. Just don’t be afraid to ask for support. Access therapists. Join support groups. Utilize social services in your area and take full advantage of halfway houses, rehabilitation services, and job training classes, among other programs.

If you or a loved one are struggling with your mental health, substance abuse, or experiencing suicidal ideation after being recently being released from prison, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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