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America has a mental health problem. Nowhere is this more evident then in America’s broken criminal justice system.

According to a 2016 research study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, about 20% of prisoners in jail and 15% in prison have a serious mental illness (SMI). There has been a systematic failure by the state to deliver necessary care to mentally ill inmates. SMI inmates are treated, but those with milder conditions like depression, anxiety, stress, lack of appetite or sleep are relegated to the back of the line or simply fall by the wayside. Suicide rates in prison are at an all time high.

My story of battling depression on the inside started about five years ago during my first psychiatric interview at county jail in processing. A tired counselor with a gentle demeanor and large round glasses asked me if I was depressed or suicidal. I assured him I was neither and was adjusting well. I lied. The truth was, I had fallen into the well and was being consumed by darkness. I had considered the coward’s solution, suicide.

I’m a college graduate, veteran, and successful communications executive. In prison, I’ve worked as a tutor and inmate yoga instructor. Every day I see fellow inmates with problems and tell them to speak up. But five years ago as I suffered from a deep depression, I didn’t say a word. 

I was raised by an old fashioned father. I was raised to be strong, not to show emotion and never cry. Now, as an inmate these expectations are amplified. In the meeting with my counselor I was afraid of being judged as weak. This happens to be a valid fear behind these walls. In prison, more so than in the real world, perception is everything. Any hint of weakness would surely be exploited by predators seeking prey. So I hid behind my tough guy facade.  Inside I felt small, stupid and under siege.

Even before my incarceration I struggled with depression. It manifested itself through various bouts with alcoholism and sexual addiction. During that time I functioned.

Things were better for a while and then they weren’t. I learned depression can be episodic, coming in alternating waves of intense emotion and numbness. Still, through the highs and lows, I never considered asking for help. 

That’s how powerful this stigma is. It erodes our human instinct to call out for help and to survive. This stigma has prevented stories about mental health issues in prison from ever being made public.  

After months of silence, I was drowning and couldn’t pretend anymore. I felt as if I was locked in a barrel at the bottom of the ocean. I was helpless and hopeless. I was isolating myself, getting thinner and not sleeping. My family knew something was wrong. They begged me to get help and I was too weak to resist. 

The therapist I saw spent two minutes asking me about my sexual orientation and suicidal thoughts. I don’t remember what I said to her. It was artificial and packaged, and apparently not enough to support another visit. I think she recommended I drink more water. I only saw her one time. Months later, a different psychiatrist went through their checklist with me during a video conference. I wasn’t called back again, either.

I needed to talk, but thought I couldn’t. Instead, I took my father’s advice about staying busy. I rediscovered my faith and began to attend chapel services. I started to play soccer at Yard and Scrabble in the dayroom. Eventually, I began to share small tidbits of what I was going through with those closest to me. I began to feel better. 

Talking about my issues seemed scarier than living with them. I felt vulnerable and exposed at the thought of divulging such intimate details about my feelings. I feared the conversation wouldn’t go well. I feared being judged. My depression was constantly telling me to stay quiet. 

I didn’t believe I even knew how to talk about it. Could I put those feelings into words?

One evening during a night yard walk with a friend, I spoke openly about my depression. We usually spent these walks talking about random gossip or just blowing off steam.

For whatever reason, I felt I could trust him and it felt like the right time to tell him. There was a time in here when I was in a really dark place and I was afraid of going back there. He nodded his head and patiently listened. It was like any other conversation we’d ever had. 

For the first time I understood that my personal battle with mental health didn’t have to be a skeleton in my closet. This talk was only the first step toward getting past my own stigma. I continued to struggle for years. Now I know that the only way to end this stigma among the inmate community is to have productive discussions about mental health issues in prison. To break the silence. To encourage and prompt conversations, one at a time. 

I didn’t know where to start the conversation with a counselor or therapist. I’ve come to learn that the conversation can start anywhere. The places where I felt most safe talking didn’t look like a doctor’s office. The facility chaplain offered not only an ear but hope. Hope is always the first to go with my severe depression. 

I eased my way into therapy group sessions. The sessions didn’t have a requirement for how much I had to engage. This made me feel safe. Wellness practices like meditation, yoga and breathing techniques have helped me develop useful ways to cope.

The point is, I did something about my depression. I stopped hiding. I hope and pray that if you’re suffering, you too can find the courage to find someone to talk to. Not every story about depression or mental health issues will end badly, but far too many do. Every time we talk about mental health issues, we erode the stigma for everyone. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Leo Cardez

Leo Cardez is a prison journalist and prison reform activist who has written for various newsletters and newspapers. His work has been selected for various anthologies. He is the editor of the prison newspaper, Dixon Digest. He volunteers as an Advisory Board Member of Prison Health News and serves on a committee for College Guild. He is incarcerated in Illinois. Leo Cardez is a pen name.