Mental health is an umbrella term that refers to an individual’s psychological, social, and emotional well-being. It impacts the way you act, feel, think, or handle routine situations in your life.

To live happily, healthily, and peacefully, mental well-being is essential. And while it’s vital for everyone, it’s especially crucial for those living under severe conditions or with terrible life experiences. Factors like genetics, environment, childhood trauma, or stressful events can trigger mental stress among individuals.

One particular demographic that is especially vulnerable is inmates or prisoners. According to the US Department of Justice, around 358 in every 100,000 American residents are in prison, and nearly half suffer from some form of mental illness. Most convicts come from broken families, unemployment issues, abuse, or poverty.

These circumstances increase the risk of developing severe mental illnesses, either before or after getting imprisoned. Additionally, the lack of quality mental health treatment and trained professionals working in these settings continue to worsen prisoners’ well-being with time.

But while helping inmates deal with mental illnesses may be challenging, it’s not impossible. Here are a few proven ways you can help them cope with mental stress and other related concerns.

1. Gain professional knowledge

Although mental health and its importance have recently gained much popularity, there’s still much to learn about it. New information, techniques, and research come to light daily, and professionals in this field must understand their value. Therefore, to keep up with the latest knowledge and practices in mental health, consider pursuing advanced degree programs such as those that offer counseling degrees to their candidates. The theories and principles you learn from this curriculum can be implemented on clients and patients who come to you for treatment. Since inmates are often more complex than community members, arming yourself with advanced knowledge can go a long way in helping them manage mental health issues.

2. Develop new thinking patterns

While anyone can develop a mental health illness, certain behaviors can influence the risk of acquiring it. For instance, negative thinking patterns or emotions—conscious or unconscious- significantly impact an individual’s mental well-being.

On the contrary, by practicing and rewiring how someone thinks, feels, or acts, you can help them better adjust their responses and mental health. This approach is known as cognitive restructuring, and research shows that it has successfully transformed how people perceive things.

In cognitive restructuring, you must work closely with your client to identify any adverse behavior or pattern impacting their mental stress. Once you recognize the triggers, you can challenge them and recreate a more realistic view, so the client sees they’re just thoughts. For instance, inmates may be worried about the harsh prison environment making them violent or aggressive towards their loved ones. But by helping them see how their concern is making them worry in the first place, you can influence how they act and provide ways to break free of a self-inflicted cycle.

3. Advocate for correctional policies

For inmates, their prison sentence is the given sanction. Certain rights like freedom of movement or liberty get taken away from them so they can be held accountable for their actions. However, a prison or correctional facility’s conditions shouldn’t factor in as an additional punishment.

Unfortunately, most prison staff treat inmates harshly and strip them of basic self-esteem and pride. This mistreatment and an unjust vindictive environment shatters prisoners and worsens their mental well-being.

Correctional facilities and prisons must be held accountable for their actions to reduce the prevalence of violent crimes in jails and society once these prisoners get out.

To help these prisoners, you can play a vital role in advocating for their rights and helping develop policies that make prison staff answerable for their “punishments.”

4. Identify triggers

Much like a physical illness, each mental health case is different, albeit similar. For certain individuals, the environment and people can trigger episodes or bouts of stress. For others, their thoughts or emotions may result in a cascade of adverse events.

Whatever the cause, the first step towards helping your client is identifying these and why they’re occurring. Create a safe space where they can share their experiences and feelings with you without fearing judgment or punishment.

It’s important to remember that inmates are also human beings and deserve the same respect as any other of your clients. Your bias and preconceptions must stay outdoors, or they’ll hinder any progress you might make with them.

Recognizing these triggers can help clients better prepare for them when they arise. When clients understand these feelings are normal and expected, they’re less likely to worry about them and will recover quicker.

5. Screen inmates before registration

Inmates with mental disorders may exponentially worsen once incarcerated due to the harsh prison conditions. Most correctional facilities aim to completely rob convicts of their identities and make them wards of the justice system. However, all inmates come from varying backgrounds, experiences, and societies—and not recognizing their differences can harm them.

With this in mind, mental health screening is vital for mentally ill prisoners’ safety and quality of life. It’s equally crucial for protecting their fellow inmates, the facility staff, and the general population once the prisoners’ sentence is complete.

Using mental health screening tools, you can better assess inmates who come to prison with mental health conditions and those who become ill while in prison. With this data, you can compare the before and after incarceration impact and develop more effective tools to help clients deal with their illnesses.

6. Maintain links with loved ones

Multiple research studies over time have emphasized the importance of social integration for sound mental health among the general population. But imprisonment, while a highly stressful situation, impedes social relationships and availability of support for most inmates.

Whether due to restrictions by the prison itself, or rejection by the family, this lack of support can be a strong stimulator for mental stress. As a mental health professional, you can change this and help inmates maintain links and connections with their loved ones.

By allowing your client to see they have something to look forward to once they’re out, you can significantly impact their mental well-being and overall health.


Prisons and correctional facilities play a crucial role in maintaining the justice system of a country. But while it may house criminals, taking care of their mental health is just as important as the rest of the community. And as someone who may be interested in helping them, your part can be critical in reducing society’s recidivism rates and ensuring its residents’ safety.