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4 Strategies for Supporting Incarcerated Family Members

Guest Contributor:

Jessica Henry, Ph.D.

Licensed Psychologist

African Americans are incarcerated at disproportionate rates and nearly six times the rate of whites. Research indicates that family closeness and support are protective and beneficial for African Americans, which suggests that African American families may be able to provide an additional source of support for loved ones who are incarcerated.

Family members can help increase awareness of mental health concerns by contacting the jail or prison.

Changes in behavior or an increase in mental health symptoms are often noticed by family members and friends. For instance, someone who is incarcerated may begin experiencing psychosis (hearing and/or seeing things that are not there) or reporting increased suicidal thoughts or hopelessness. Your family member or friend who is incarcerated may display or share these thoughts and symptoms during visitation, on phone calls, and/or in letters/emails. If you are a family member of someone who is incarcerated who is displaying a change in behavior and/or increased mental health symptoms, you can contact the jail or prison where your family member is incarcerated and inform them of these concerns. There may be a mental health department at the jail or prison that can provide your family member with treatment services or a treatment facility where your family member can be referred to.

Family members can encourage the use of mental health treatment services.

Individuals who are incarcerated may begin to display mental health signs and symptoms to family members and friends. These mental health symptoms may include increased sadness, hopelessness, and anxiety. As an additional support system, you can encourage your family member who is incarcerated to seek mental health treatment when new mental health symptoms appear or pre-existing symptoms emerge. Also, if you are aware that your family member who is incarcerated is no longer receiving treatment services or has refused their medication, you can encourage them to continue their treatment services or seek professional advice on how and when to stop these services.

Family members can maintain connections by writing letters and sending pictures.

Individuals who are incarcerated tend to feel a loss of connections. Holidays are often the most difficult time of the year for individuals who are incarcerated because they are reminded of past, enjoyable experiences with loved ones and family. While it can be difficult to find the time to consistently write letters to family members or friends who are incarcerated, one strategy for maintaining connections is to write letter/emails and send pictures during major events (e.g., birthdays, graduations) and celebrated holidays.

Family members can offer support during the re-entry process.

Individuals who are incarcerated encounter many obstacles when released from jail or prison. While family ties and support are important to offenders during periods of incarceration, family support is vital for offenders transitioning back into society. Research suggests that those who are incarcerated depend on their family members extensively for housing, financial, and emotional support once released from prison. For some family members, the first step to providing support to an offender during the re-entry process is to rebuild and repair the relationship by opening lines of communication through letters, phone calls, and visits prior to their release from prison.

Guest Contributor

Jessica Henry, Ph.D. is the Clinical Director of a level-5 close security male prison, the Vice President of Digital Health Content, Evaluation, and Monitoring for Black Mental Wellness, Corp, the Founder and CEO of Community Impact: Consultation & Psychological Services, a contributor and evaluator for the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Project, and a board member of the Grady Nia Project - Community Advisory Board. Jessica is dedicated to reducing and eliminating barriers to receiving mental health treatment for African Americans and minorities and increasing access to mental health care for underserved populations impacted by traumatic events.

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