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A Tendril of Hope for Mental Health and Incarceration

“A Dickensian nightmare” is how the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania described the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ treatment of mentally ill inmates back in 2013. The advocacy nonprofit’s complaint stated that mentally ill inmate’s symptoms were exacerbated, then they were punished with still more jail time – often in solitary confinement.

Following such scathing criticism, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections responded with new policies reflecting diversionary tactics over use of solitary confinement. Today, one Pennsylvania correctional institution stands out with new programs and a new culture to reduce the prevalence of mental illness within its walls. (Living Inside a Prison, Inmates Deal with Mental Health, The Times-Tribune, July 24, 2017).

From what started as a pilot program at State Correctional Institution at Waymart in Waymart County, Penn., a group of inmates were given the opportunity to become certified as peer support specialists and get trained in Mental Health First Aid. Now, they lead group therapy sessions and serve as point people when their peers experience a mental health crisis.

“The thinking is an inmate will have a more frank and honest discussion with another inmate,” said Lynn Patrone, a mental health advocate for the state Department of Corrections. “The beauty of it is that it turns their lives around as well as those they’re helping.”

Training in peer specialist support and Mental Health First Aid gives people the ability to recognize and respond to those in need. And with the highest prevalence of mental health conditions in jails and prisons, there is a lot of need. But this program isn’t just applicable inside jails and prisons; Mental Health First Aid is also a real-world accreditation that can lead to jobs upon release.

People who are incarcerated and trained in Mental Health First Aid have the incredible potential to #BeTheDifference in their own, and others’ lives, both inside and outside of the criminal justice system.

It is widely known that prisons and jails are notorious for being the worst place to treat mental illness. People with mental health conditions who are incarcerated are especially vulnerable to the often harsh conditions and inadequate treatment services.

Despite this, there are tendrils of hope.