Men’s mental health: A real barrier to prisoners rehabilitation?

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Men’s mental health: A real barrier to prisoners rehabilitation?

What does it mean to be a man? Assertive, resilient, can man-up… In recent years, this question has been receiving more attention which has led to an emphasis on a real issue we are facing in the UK: men’s mental health and suicide. Shockingly, suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK and further data shows that men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. Numbers like this make us think more about the connotations (and expectations) associated with the word “man” and the effects of feeling pressure to live up to those expectations on one’s mental health. After years of campaigns, we are now normalising the idea that proactively addressing your problems, admitting when you are struggling and seeking help is a sign of strength as opposed to a weakness.

But has this shift in attitudes reached the landings in our prisons? After spending the last 15 months working on a wing, I can confirm that this is not yet the case. Over-exaggerated toughness and concealing weaknesses, nonchalant attitude towards violence and drugs and emotional suppression are just some of the characteristics displayed by the men in our prisons. This toxic atmosphere, where adherence to the “prison code” is often prioritised over one’s wellbeing, can have a detrimental effect on one’s mental health, but what can frontline staff do to address this issue?

Addressing men’s mental health is a particularly crucial element to my role as a prison officer as I believe that mental health issues often act as a barrier to rehabilitation. A prisoner’s time in prison is meant to be dedicated to addressing their offending, obtaining new qualifications, and gaining work experience to help them reintegrate into society. However, focusing on these aspects of your life can be challenging at the best of times. How do you address these when your mental health and the pressure to live up to a certain social expectation gets in the way?

Before I even started my role in the prison, I already knew that men’s mental health would be an area that I would want to focus on during my two years with Unlocked. I am a huge advocate for changing attitudes in this area on the outside, but I did not know where to begin to do the same inside. Even when I thought of exciting new ideas, their feasibility was often crushed by the strict security requirements of a closed environment.

Changing attitudes is a big task so it was important to think small at first. That is why in my first few weeks I focused on starting to normalise conversations around mental health. As expected, I received a lot of resistance from the prisoners as they were sceptical about discussing their issues with me and they all thought I had an ulterior motive, or they did not want to be seen engaging in long conversations by other prisoners. The inmate code, where prisoners are expected not to rely on us too much really became apparent to me, so I had to take a different approach.

I took a step back and started observing more. Who had not collected their meals? Why did this person start skipping gym? When did this person’s stop taking care of their cell? Noticing changes in habits opened a great window of opportunity to start conversations about mental health and often the root cause of the change in behaviour would become apparent.

Once the prisoners on my landing realised that my support was genuine and that they could rely on me for help with their mental health, they became more open about their struggles. Whether it was childhood trauma, years of substance abuse or time spent in care, they started to become more honest with me because they knew I could direct them to the right help. It was a great step in the direction that I wanted to go in, but there was still a lot more work to do.

The idea to run the Movember campaign in my prison happened in late October 2020. With more visits being cancelled and purposeful activity being put on hold due to the pandemic, I thought it would be a great opportunity to boost morale on the landing, get the lads involved in something meaningful and get them to think about the issues surrounding men’s mental health. I was lucky that the other Unlocked graduates placed in my prison were incredibly supportive of my idea and together we were able to organise a month-long campaign, fundraiser, and series of challenges for Movember.

We encouraged physical activity by setting a running challenge where every prisoner records the number of laps they run/walk with the aim of completing 120 marathons across the whole prison. The men were so invested in this, with each wing wanting to reach the greatest number of laps, that I started seeing prisoners who never leave their cells come out and exercise to do their bit. Over 20 prisoners committed to growing out a funky moustache which was a significant conversation starter throughout the campaign. In the end, with the huge support from the staff around the prison, we were also able to raise almost £500 towards the Movember Foundation.

The campaign was a huge success, and though it was tough in the midst of the lockdown, it boosted morale among prisoners during an extremely difficult time and brought attention to some of the real issues affecting the men on the landings.