This article is a reprint of an article in the Winter 2018 issue of Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.
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.
BLUE CHRISTMAS: KNOW THE SIGNS AND SOLUTIONS OF DEPRESSION
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. It's common for prisoners and their families to experience depression around the holidays, so it's 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 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
The normal stresses of adjusting to prison life can look like depression. So how can you tell whether someone is 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 a person happy no longer bring enjoyment, that might be a sign. Also, in men, depression often shows up as anger more than sadness—lashing out at everyone over the slightest thing.
"Look for clues that something doesn't feel right, that you're not yourself," says Deweese. Because depression can distort a person's sense of reality, it can be hard for a depressed person to realize 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
- thoughts of dying or suicide
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, psychologist and owner of Synergy eTherapy, adds that the 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 focused on family togetherness," so when you don't have that because you are separated by incarceration, "you can feel very alone."
Other factors that can make depression worse include lack of privacy, too much downtime, and less access to support. Symptoms can be more severe during these winter holidays because the days are darker and shorter.
WAYS TO COPE
Ready for some good news? There are self-care tools you and your loved ones can use when dealing with depression—whether in or out of prison.
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
Get 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.
Deweese suggests reading (she says many prisoners find comfort in reading the Bible) 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 every day; start small (even as simple as doing 10 jumping jacks) and slowly increase the task when ready. Meeting a goal can help fight feelings of worthlessness.
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. And use extra kindness toward yourself and others, remembering this time—and these feelings—will pass.
There's no shame in depression. "The brain is an organ, and just like any other body part is susceptible to illness or imbalance, so is our brain," says Deweese. "It's not about weakness; sometimes it just means that you played hard enough, or that life threw a hard enough hit at you. And just like there's no shame in seeing a doctor if you need a cast on your leg, there's no shame in getting extra help if you're depressed."