By Ethan Macks
From PHN Issue 46, Spring/Summer 2021
With all the concern going around about COVID-19 and what is essential and what is not, I feel that there needs to be greater consideration for mental health.
Being incarcerated, I see a lot of stigma concerning the issue of mental health. Being labeled as SMI (Seriously Mentally Ill) on the streets, I’ve had ample experience with mental health and how it should be treated. The National Institute of Mental Health defines SMI as a “mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” SMI commonly refers to a diagnosis of psychotic disorders (schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder with psychotic symptoms, treatment-resistant depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and personality disorders.
The treatment that one can receive while being in prison does not compare to the treatment available to those on the streets. While I think that people should be held accountable for their actions, there are situations that result from the presence of a serious mental illness. These situations should not be taken as a serious crime but instead as an obvious cry for help, especially if it is a non-dangerous offense.
Once one is locked in behind the prison gates, I’ve seen that the treatment one receives is not very readily available. Especially in this stop-go, hurry-up-and-wait world prisoners live in. What I hope to achieve by writing this is to inform people about what it is like on the inside as an SMI individual and ways to cope for those who are in a similar situation.
First off, every day is a struggle for me. I wake up and take meds right away. The medication I take is supposed to help with the psychotic symptoms I suffer from. On one hand, the medication is supposed to help me function, and on the other hand, the medication has adverse effects as well. Two symptoms that do not ever go away are stress and anxiety. The medication does not help much with depression. Being cut off from the outside world contributes to that depression.
If I’m feeling isolated, I try and focus on my writing as a way to sort through my racing thoughts. One can never know for sure what is going on in my mind, just like I can never know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. This could be the cause of the tension in a hostile environment because you can never predict for sure how someone will react to everyday events. Mental illness runs rampant in the Department of Corrections—I know I am not alone when it comes to uncertainties of what my next best move is. It’s like being a pawn on the chessboard of life. I feel that I am just a number to the government and they see me as dispensable at any time. This makes it even more difficult to trust the mental health treatments offered.
Next is how other people like me receive treatment. Therapy and counseling amounts to about a 30-minute visit once a month. The daily mantra of “Take your meds or receive a ticket” is backed by the demand to answer four basic questions to assess your mental health status. The answer to their questions is programmed into me. Yes, I sleep at night; no, I don’t plan to harm myself or others; yes, I’ve been eating food; and no, symptoms are not getting better or worse. It doesn’t help that there aren’t groups that are meant to rehabilitate SMI individuals. We should all be allowed a space to discuss our troubles and seek peer support. We should have assigned counselors that can help assess if we are ready to be released. Many times the case is that SMI inmates catch ticket after ticket for petty offenses like smoking or being out of place and get sent to more and more restrictive custody levels. Time gets very hard very fast.
With all this being said, I have come up with solutions to help me cope. One coping mechanism is to build a daily routine. Knowing you have goals to achieve on a day-to-day basis, even as simple as reading a book, will give you a sense of accomplishment and help time go by much faster. For me, that hobby is writing. Writing beats laying around and staring at the ceiling. I’ve spent hours and hours doing this, and nothing changes—so, trust me, find a better way to do time. Something else you can do is find someone you can confide in. If you don’t feel like you can trust anyone, that’s okay, you can start a journal and respond and reflect on your own thoughts. This is a healthy alternative that’s much better than entertaining voices in your head. Lastly, I recommend stretching and meditation. This will relax your body and your mind. It takes practice to get good at this, so don’t give up right away.
These simple solutions have become powerful factors in my life. Hopefully, by writing this, I can help others. If not through advice, then maybe through education. This is all based on my honest opinion and personal experiences. I would like to thank you for your time and consideration—and please remember to always keep hope.