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A collage of headlines from magazines addressing mental health
Artwork (detail) by Gwendolyn Burton-Green

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts, round-the-clock help is available through the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988, or chat online at For the Veterans Crisis Line, call 988, then press 1; text 838255; or chat at

I have been dealing with mental health issues for most of my life. Being behind prison walls has been my biggest challenge.

About 43% of people in state prisons and almost 23% of people in federal prisons have had a history of a mental health problem, according to a 2021 publication from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Women were significantly more likely than men to experience problems.  

On March 7 of this year, “KeeKee,” a beloved friend, took her own life. KeeKee suffered from various types of mental illness. She had been bullied by inmates and neglected by officers. She did not deserve the treatment she endured. She touched the lives of so many people. I will never forget her. No one will.

Because of the emptiness of prison life, I too have had suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder, which only makes me more depressed. I have felt shame, been called stupid and have felt at times that my life has been an ongoing cruel joke.

My children have also struggled with mental health. I have spent so many years angry at myself — feeling like I passed my struggles down to them. Though I am taking things one day at a time, and I feel like I am healing, losing KeeKee only reinforces the need for adequate mental health treatment in prison. 

A collage of headlines from magazines addressing mental health
Artwork by Gwendolyn Burton-Green

Mental health is a very real issue, but we have been taught to push through no matter what it costs us. “Be strong.” “It will be OK.” “Don’t stress about it.” These clichés only disregard the validity of our emotions — emotions that, for some, are already difficult to understand.

Below are excerpts from conversations and interviews about mental health, which have been edited for length and clarity. (PJP removed the last names or substituted initials to protect the womens’ identities.)

Tori: I feel that the authorities definitely need not to turn a blind eye to this issue and sweep it under the rug. … If the officers here were truly doing their jobs and paying attention to the mental health needs on a case-by-case basis, rather than judging us collectively and assuming that we are trying to get attention — manipulate the system to get our way or assuming that we are being untruthful when seeking help — tragedies like this could have been avoided.

Angel: I think that their treatment of mental health if someone is showing signs of distress is wrong. They shouldn’t be shamed and humiliated by being thrown in a strip cell.* Being thrown in this cell and just watched by non-professionals is not helping those in need. Someone should be on call. 

* A strip cell is a room in which incarcerated women are taken and are forced to wear an anti-suicide smock called a “turtle suit” instead of their clothes when they are experiencing distress.

T.R.: Mental health is a serious issue all the way around. No matter if someone is depressed or dealing with anxiety, it is still an issue. We, as inmates, are people too — and we need mental health help. Real help, not being thrown naked in a room and left there. In order for us to have the help we need, there should be enough mental health counselors available 24/7, just in case a dire need arises. We should not be left to fight our own mental demons by ourselves. It is not up to our peers to be our counselors if they are, in fact, dealing with their own mental issues as well.

Hillary: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the prison should have done a better job seeing patients, keeping mental health medications renewed and including family members on the outside in treatment plans. The help here at the facility has been much better than that in the local jails I was in before I got here. 

Angie: I don’t think the prison takes it seriously when a person is going through a crisis. They wait until a person says they are going to kill themselves before taking action with the issue at hand. Mental illness is real — everyone has some type of mental health issue. It can affect people during childhood or adulthood. A lot of people are afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to be stereotyped or called crazy. There are always signs in people to show that they have something going on inside their head. Usually it’s the mood changes or the way they speak. It’s OK to ask for help. Know that you are not alone. 

Luisa: I am 25 years old and I feel like mental health is very important to talk about within the prison system. I was diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder. The hardest thing for me to deal with is depression because it is so lonely in here. Sometimes I don’t want to move from bed, and talking to a therapist doesn’t seem like an option. I have good days and I have bad days. Depression is something I have dealt with my whole life, and it has never been as bad as it is now. Sometimes it feels like there is nothing and giving up would be best, but it does get better. The support of my family and friends and their understanding of my depression has really helped me. My writing and my poetry has been an outlet for me as well as music. 

Y.C.: Some people use the term mental health to get away with certain things, such as negative behavior, a reason to isolate, and to get away with the nature of their crimes. I feel more women use this term than men. Although most women are more sensitive than men, that doesn’t make it acceptable.

Victoria: The facility has really dropped the ball and continuously shows gross negligence when it comes to those that are actually unable to control their behavior. Instead of keeping them in a secured housing unit for their safety, as well as others’, they integrate them into general population which only causes more chaos.

Rebecca: I believe that mental health is overlooked. A corrections officer here made fun of those of us who have PTSD. His words were, “Don’t you all use PTSD as the reason you do something?” I feel that was very wrong of him. PTSD is a true issue that should not be mocked or made fun of. The individuals that are now in this wing with us are in need of daily help. Overlooking mental health puts all inmates at risk.

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.

Gwendolyn Burton-Green is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.