USA (MNN) — September is National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month in the United States. The latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that suicides increased 85 percent in state prisons over two decades and 61 percent in federal prisons.
The report goes up to 2019 and doesn’t yet cover pandemic numbers, but Anne Hamming with Crossroads Prison Ministries says COVID made things even harder for prisoners’ mental health.
“Through the pandemic, especially when the lockdowns were in every facility, [we saw] just despair and loneliness,” says Hamming. “‘I don’t get to leave my cell. I don’t get to have visitors. I can only communicate via mail with my family, and sometimes not even that.’ There were staffing issues, so a lot of inmates didn’t even get their mail through parts of the pandemic because COVID created staffing issues. It was just a huge compounding of issues that added to the isolation, and it was prolonged.
“Now, we’re three years into the pandemic and things have opened up, of course, and returned much more to normal. But there still are these conditions that create isolation over and above conditions that already contributed to risks of falling into mental illness.”
Crossroads pairs prisoners with Christian mentors to write letters and go through mailed Bible studies together.
Hamming says, “First of all, we are eyes and ears. So if a student in a Bible study or in a letter conveys some suicidal ideation or some thoughts that cause us concern, our staff immediately contacts the facility where the student resides to make sure that appropriate interventions happen.”
The biggest part Crossroads mentors can play is to provide emotional support and spiritual encouragement.
“That’s the role of our mentors — to pray for the students, to offer them encouragement, and to write them a letter with every lesson. The impact of that is students know they aren’t forgotten. That’s the single largest concern for inmates because the vast majority of them do not receive any mail. A fair number of them receive no visitors, and they do feel absolutely forgotten.
“Time after time, they say, ‘Thank you for remembering me, and letting me know I’m not forgotten. Thank you for letting me know that God loves me. Thank you for letting me know and showing me that God has a purpose for me and that incarceration is just one period of my life. I am not my crimes. I am the person I am now in Christ.’”
Hamming emphasizes, “We are not mental health professionals at Crossroads, yet we are able to provide some things that would complement mental health services for students.”
If you know someone behind bars who would benefit from participating in the Crossroads program, refer them to Crossroads here!
You can also become a Crossroads mentor yourself. Hamming says, “The beauty of Crossroads is that you can do it anywhere. People who are mentors say, ‘Man, I don’t have to go travel miles and miles and go into a prison. I can have this connection.’ And they’re always surprised at the connections that they make simply by writing a letter and walking through a Bible study with a student.”
Finally, pray for men and women in prisons both in the US and around the world to know the hope they have in Jesus Christ.
Header photo courtesy of Ye Jinghan via Unsplash.