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Institutional Syndrome: mental health problem or social issue?

The road to rehabilitation after incarceration is riddled with mental health and social problems.

Often in black culture, you hear people talk about peoplebeing institutionalized, because of how they behave after doing time in prison.Most of the time people don’t even say “institutionalized” they just say “jailbird” or some other term.  

In the world of psychology, institutionalization or institutional syndrome refers to deficits or disabilities in social and life skills, which develop after a person has spent a long period living in mental hospitals, prisons, or other remote institutions. Basically, individuals in institutions may be stripped (whether on purpose or not) of independence and of responsibility, to the point that once they return to “outside life” they are often unable to adjust to many of its demands; it is also believed by many, that institutionalized people become more prone to mental health issues after imprisonment.

When most of us think about institutionalization, it’s usually the funny stuff like Damon from “Friday After Next,” pushing up on Katt Williams, or how their distant cousin that just got out is still living by prison rules. For the most part, people really only notice the most basic symptoms of institutionalization. Most people don’t recognize the more subtle issues.

There is a much sadder, more problematic reality to adjusting back into society after returning from prison. Many Ex-cons experience a variety of mental illnesses when they come home (or while incarcerated) like depression, anxiety, and some may even develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Imagine being in a dangerous environment, not being able to trust anyone, having to watch your back 24/7 for several years; then all of a sudden, being put back into civilization, and be expected to blend into your community. Upon returning home from prison, many people have to completely restructure their way of thinking. For example,  many ex-cons have to relearn how to trust others, because while they were locked up trusting the wrong person had severe consequences, such as extreme manipulation by and in some cases: death.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, more commonly known as PTSD, is a common symptom amongst the prison population. Prisons are filled with hardcore criminals. With that being said, there is a high potential for trauma–such as being a witness or victim of extreme violence–which is an essential factor in the development of PTSD. Many people develop PTSD while incarcerated, and the symptoms follow them home; they may experience flashbacks of traumatic situations, have anxiety about things that remind them of the traumatic experience, or even have nightmares about it. PTSD symptoms can make things extremely tough for someone who is trying to reintegrate back into society, which is tough enough already!

Former inmates generally have a rough time adjusting back into society after prison. This transition can be especially challenging if life is even rougher after being released from prison than it was before going in. Most inmates have high hopes for what life on the outside will be like when they get out of jail. While locked up, many people think about their friends and family were excited to see them, picking up where things left off with a significant other or being able to leave the “street life” to pursue and legitimate career; as we all know, the return home for ex-cons is rarely as good as expected. After years of fantasizing about being released, coming home to a reality nothing like you imagined can be extremely disappointing, which can lead to depression.

Ex-cons that are parents have to adjust to being a parent and looking out for someone other than themselves like they did on the inside, which is also a potential contributor to depression. Not to mention the guilt many ex-cons have after missing substantial periods of their child’s life. There are an endless amount of situations that can lead to depression for someone who is returning home from prison; so the best thing to do for someone returning home is to help them get help if you suspect they are having emotional issues

At the end of the day everyone deserves a second chance–including people returning home from prison. Therefore, to help them truly rehabilitate we must consider the emotional toll that incarceration has had on them as they endeavor to successfully reintegrate back into society.

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