Mark: "Education over medication"

Mark, a serving prisoner, describes how learning has improved his mental heath. He writes:

"I have spent over 20 years behind bars and am also a user of mental health services. I have noticed that over the past seven to eight years there has been a decline of mental health services offered within the prison estate due to budget cuts and ministerial policies despite the fact that nine out of 10 people in prison suffer some kind of mental health issue. Prisoners who are stuck behind their doors with no purposeful activity, no real work prospects and no job training; lost within a system.

At the beginning of my sentence, I was extremely distressed at the lack of understanding of my own mental well-being. To my advantage, there were a number of classes and groups, provided by the NHS, available for me to access through the prison's mental health service.

Stock image of art at Pentonville

While participating in these classes, in drama, art, music therapy and basic cookery, I felt I was able to express various thoughts and feelings that enabled me to make sense of the world.

These classes gave me a feeling of self-worth in addition to a feeling of worth to those around me. The majority of individuals using these groups who also had mental health issues felt the experience was invaluable.

It has been my experience that the education department, despite cuts of its own, has offered an ‘open arms policy’ in regards to making education accessible as well as allowing prisoners to feel welcomed. I believe education actively promotes self-inquiry, growth, worth, and a sense of direction through the acquisition of soft skills, which brings a wider and deeper understanding of the self.

Through my experiences with education, I adopted a motto of ‘education over medication’. The education department taught me that my mental health is not something I should feel ashamed of nor hide behind; in fact, quite the opposite. The tutors expressed a genuine interest and encouraged me to promote this side of me within my learning. Celebrating, harnessing and utilising it to the best of its ability.

For myself and others in prison with mental health issues and minimal support, education plays a stronger role than it ever has in the past. Within each course I find new tools that move me along with structure, self esteem and confidence.

Clearly I will face many knock backs in society once I am released from prison and become an ‘ex-convict’ but all of the above will help me to remain focused and optimistic. This will also keep my risk of re-offending low.

Mental health is not a choice, in my case it is for life. Thankfully the education department acknowledges this fact. To hold a mirror to one’s self and to find your own path, then the sky’s the limit. Life for me is about quality and self-discovery. I believe the prison education department has given me that space to understand my self and helped me to turn a corner.