From Joe Kraynak, co-host of Bipolar Beat: I have been corresponding with a young man who is currently being held in a federal detention center (FDC). I asked him to share his insights and advice for how friends and family members can support a loved one with bipolar or another serious mental illness who is in prison. He wrote this post.
Everyone knows the importance of communication in maintaining one’s emotional and psychological well-being. Communication is even more essential for those with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses who may be confused about where they are and why and may even be experiencing paranoia and psychosis.
Unfortunately, the system isn’t designed to optimize communication. At the same time, family members, friends, and colleagues of the person who’s been locked up often step back, because they’re hurt, afraid, or confused or because they’ve drawn their own conclusions before the trial has even begun. As a result, the person with bipolar disorder who’s been locked up often feels isolated.
Communication Hurdles in Prison
People who’ve never been in prison or in a psych ward take many daily forms of communication for granted. On the outside, people can call a friend for advice, get a hug from a family member, or receive an email or text message at any time letting them know that someone is thinking about them. They can make an appointment to see their therapist when they need support or advice. When medications aren’t working or are causing unbearable side effects, they can pick up the phone and call their doctor.
In prison almost all of these “privileges” and opportunities for human contact are removed or restricted. The following list highlights a few of the policies and practices that hinder open communication:
- Want to call a friend or family member? You better have money to make the $3.75 phone call that lasts only 15 minutes.
- Need an embrace from mom? Then she had better be listed your approved visitation list. And don’t expect much physical contact; you get only one brief hug (only a few seconds) at the beginning of the session and one to close it up.
- Arranging to see a doctor is a very long process, sometimes taking months, even if you’re experiencing a pressing mental health issue. Only those who make the mistake of letting someone know they feel suicidal get immediate attention… in the form of being locked in isolation for a minimum of 30 days, during which time they’re allowed one phone call and no interaction with other people.
- Anything you disclose during “in house” counseling sessions may be used against you. In prison, you’re not protected by any doctor-client or therapist-client privileges. For example, if you steal something during a manic episode and happen to mention it to your in-house therapist, your “confession” may be used as an admission of guilt. I caution inmates to tread lightly on certain subjects.
- Seeking support from fellow inmates isn’t always a good idea and may be a very bad idea. Showing any emotional vulnerability can make life stressful or even dangerous for a person with bipolar disorder or another serious mental illness.
Supporting a Loved One in Prison
If you have a friend, family member, or someone else you care about in prison, you can do a great deal to support that person. Here are some suggestions:
- Maintain an open line of communication. Frequent contact with family members and friends on the outside helps ground a person and ease the fear of feeling abandoned and forgotten.
- Build a support network on the outside and encourage other members of the support network to communicate regularly with the person behind bars. Corresponding with someone behind bars is more complicated than normal; for example, if you want to exchange email messages, you may have to register with the correctional facility’s email system and log on to send or receive email. Make sure everyone in the support network knows what to expect.
- Let your loved one in prison know your availability. If you have a busy life and can email only once a week, let your loved one know, so he or she can establish reasonable expectations. I get very anxious when I have not heard from anyone after a few days. I do realize that my people on the outside have lots to do; however, sometimes my depression exploits my insecurities, and I start to fear that I’ve been forgotten. A short letter or email from a family member always changes that destructive thought process and dark path.
- When communicating with loved one who’s in prison, ask a lot of open-ended questions, such as, “How are you feeling?” and “What are you doing to keep yourself busy?” Simple personal questions like that are almost therapeutic, because they allow the person to open up in a way that he or she might not be able to do on a daily basis.
- Encourage your loved one to be active. For me, exercise is almost as beneficial as medication. Exercise is a great way to blow off steam and fight depression. I would urge every bipolar to get outside and sweat! Encouragement is helpful on the days when motivation is lacking.
- Ask if your loved one is writing, reading, doing any sort of art, or playing a musical instrument. Many institutions these days actually offer music and art programs. As naturally inventive and creative as most people with bipolar disorder are, they should take advantage of these excellent resources.
The long process of a loved one going through prison can be very hard on both the inmate and on family members and friends. Keeping the valuable lines of communication open is essential in situations such as these. A simple phone call or a letter can make all the difference between going through a hellish experience and using that experience for self-discovery and strengthening bonds.
Prisoner image available from Shutterstock.