Mental health is something people used to avoid discussing, but awareness is on the rise—which is a good thing. Both incarcerated people and their families often deal with mental health struggles. Now, Maria helps them embrace a different way of thinking.
For more than 27 years, Maria Amaya, a clinical therapist and California-based Prison Fellowship® prison ministry manager, has worked with people both inside and outside of prison. We sat down with Maria to learn more.
Prison Fellowship: What are the most common mental health struggles you see among people behind bars?
Maria Amaya: Anxiety and depression—those are probably the two most common. And that's with our female and male population and even our juveniles. Men tend to become violent, and they become physical. That's how they get out their aggressions. God created women to be nurturers—emotional people—so they tend to commune, but sometimes the community is a negative community. You'll find little "families" in women's institutions.
What is trauma, and how does it affect mental health?
Trauma is a distressing event that causes an emotional response.
Incarceration is very difficult. And in a lot of places, incarceration itself is another layer of trauma, and then it can just continue to escalate depending on the person and how they handle their trauma.
When prisoners are in really good programs—like the Prison Fellowship Academy®—that bring hope and show them how to change their thought process, that's their key. And you'll hear them say, “I never even thought that I could do this,” because they've had so much trauma, especially negative interactions leading them to think they would amount to nothing.
What resources are available to people in prison who are struggling with anxiety and depression?
Prisons have clinicians inside, but every state and facility is different. In California, we actually have mental health prison facilities and even substance abuse treatment facilities for people behind bars, because a lot of our population have substance abuse problems. Substance abuse can turn into some extreme mental health problems.
What are some things that incarcerated people can do to maintain their mental health?
Do not isolate. Get in community. Get into programs and your chapel services. If you have that support group—whether it includes friends or family—connect with them. Write to them. Letter writing relieves something inside. It’s actually therapeutic. There's so much we can do, but it's work.
In California, all our institutions have given tablets to prisoners. Now, prisoners may have to pay to use some of the features on the devices, but there's just so many different ways to connect.
What advice would you give to families that are struggling with anxiety or depression as a result of their loved one's incarceration?
Look for support groups within your area. If they don't have that locally, then start one. Start talking to others. And you don't need money—all you need is a place. If you're a part of a church, talk to your church.
Say, for example, I know an Angel Tree church. They participate in Prison Fellowship programs, volunteering, and such. They have weekly group meetings for those who are affected by incarceration. They implement Bible studies, and they get together. They talk. They're able to encourage each other, pray for each other, and affirm each other.
When we are in that place with like-minded people, we get to think different. When we learn to think different, it's going to challenge us because it's uncomfortable. Again, do not isolate. Talk about it. Everybody possesses the shame and guilt of incarceration in a different way. Society puts such a condemning position on these families, and they need a safe place.
So what should a family do if they're concerned that their incarcerated loved ones might hurt themselves?
Try to talk to them about it because you'll get more information. A lot of times, suicide prevention starts with that talking because the person may sound like they want to hurt themselves even though they may not complete the act.
Family members know their loved ones best. So if they're thinking, This doesn't sound right, the best thing to do is get ahold of the institution. I would start with a chaplain because that is part of a chaplaincy program: to address those things and to help. Say there's been a death in a family, or maybe somebody's been hurt. It's super important that they're watching the prisoner and how they receive that information. It’s really important that loved ones reach out and advocate.
So let the facility know you have a concern. When following up, get names, positions, and phone numbers. Everything takes time because there are processes, but your concerns will be addressed.
What can a caregiver for a child with an incarcerated parent do to help protect the child's mental health?
If a child can have a consistent connection with their parent, caregivers need to make sure that's happening. The greatest thing would be face-to-face communication. But writing letters, phone calls, and reminders about the parent are also effective.
Some organizations go into prisons, and they allow the parent to read a book and record it with their voice and send it to the child. That has been such a great connection, and we've actually seen some children improve their grades and their reading.
Children are made to thrive when they're safe. And they thrive in consistency.
What are some warning signs of depression that these caregivers might need to know?
We have all been under stress, but the important thing is what we do with it, how long it lasts, and whether someone’s hurting themselves because of it.
Maladaptive behaviors are signs of depression in children who live with the stigma of having an incarcerated parent. Not being able to talk about their situation or openly express their love for their parent without being ostracized causes children to grieve.
Like adult men, some boys respond to these stressful situations with violence. And girls act out too, but they’re more prone to self-medicate, get into unhealthy relationships, or hurt themselves.
Depression in teens and adults in their early 20s may look a little different. People in this group might sleep too much, overeat, or participate in reckless behaviors like speeding. But sometimes, the opposite is true: They might not sleep enough or eat at all. Their hygiene also may decline, because they don’t have the energy to bathe.
What can you tell us about the connection between prisoners, mental health, and parenting?
I've worked with kids who’ve been abused, and when transformation has happened and the parents have been able to demonstrate that they have changed their behaviors, there still can be a connection.
One thing that I really want people to know is that parents who are incarcerated love and adore their children. And often society doesn't understand that. I've worked with men who [some have] considered the worst of the worst who never attended programming. And boy, when you start talking about their children, it's a whole different ballgame.
I say this to my clients, no matter who they are: “My job is to get me out of a job, because all I'm doing is providing you tools so that you know how to handle this life and think differently.”
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