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PTSD and the Criminal Justice System

By Holly Campion

Mental health is at the forefront of society these days. Society has recognised that we must look after our mental health as well as our physical health. Mental health issues remain a complex and upsetting topic for most. It is a difficult topic to speak about as it can essentially be a hidden illness. You can’t hide a broken leg, but people attempt to hide their internal worries and anxieties. We should treat our mental health as we would our physical health and seek professional assistance if we are feeling unwell.

This blog post will focus on one mental health issue which can be quite common for people with criminal convictions to suffer with: PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

PTSD is a mental health condition which is triggered by a terrifying event and is most often thought of affecting military personnel who have been in combat situations. Symptoms of this may include having nightmares, experiencing extreme anxiety and/or having flashbacks. These symptoms can interfere with your ability to live a normal life. PTSD can really affect your day to day living as a flashback can occur at any moment and can be quite debilitating. It can affect someone’s ability to hold down a job, something which is so important for people who have just been released from prison. Men and women who have been through the criminal justice system are more likely to suffer from PTSD than the general population.

The first thing to note is that you should never self-diagnose yourself with a mental health condition. We can listen to our minds and bodies and evaluate what we may think we are experiencing but by talking to a medical or mental health professional you can seek a diagnosis for what you are experiencing. The word ‘diagnosis’ can be daunting and so can putting a label on something. This fear is completely understandable but if you have a clear idea of what you are experiencing with your mental health and have received a diagnosis it can aid you in seeking help, whether this help be through medication or psychotherapy services. By engaging in therapy, you can learn techniques and coping mechanisms to use when having a flashback or feeling overwhelmed. Things like breathing techniques can seem very basic coping mechanism but can be effective when someone is in a state of panic or experiencing a heightened sense of fear. A diagnosis however, can put you on the road to recovery.

Why is it that people who have been through the criminal justice system can experience PTSD?

Being arrested and sentenced is a shock to anyone but the hardened criminal. The shame and humiliation experienced by someone convicted for the first time is significant, then add the separation from family and forceable move into a strange and uncomfortable environment and you have a situation that is hard for many people to deal with.

Prison is a very lonely environment away from physical and emotional affection and everything that makes up a normal living environment. Going through the justice system as a criminal often means that you are dehumanized. This experience of being dehumanized can sometimes bring up painful childhood memories of abuse, neglect, and isolation. Sometimes during an individual’s time in prison they can be subject to terrifying events which are of very high intensity. Seeing a friend assaulted or self-harming is not uncommon in prison. Reliving these events mentally after incarceration can lead to having this post-traumatic stress disorder. If you think about it, it is quite reasonable to assume someone would suffer mentally after having been isolated for so long from your loved ones and safe environments. Perhaps, this is something more people can relate to now after this COVID19 pandemic where we have all been forced unwillingly to isolate ourselves from people we cherish in one way or another.

What can you do if you are feeling like you may be suffering from PTSD?

Reach out for help. Ideally you should talk to a professional about how you are feeling but maybe if this seems too big of a step to begin with, tell someone close to you that you trust whether that be a probation officer, family member or friend. Below is some information on some services you can avail of if you are feeling distressed after your time in prison.

ASSIST (Assistance Support and Self Help in Surviving Trauma)

01788 560 800

Support, understanding and therapy for people experiencing PTSD, families and carers.


Infoline 0300 123 3393

Mind provide supportive and reliable information if you are suffering from a mental health problem.


116 123

24/7 Mental health helpline

NHS Traumatic Stress Service

020 3228 2969

National referral centre, they offer a rapid assessment to people suffering from PTSD.


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