The first week of October was designated as Mental Illness Awareness Week by an act of Congress in 1990.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) one in five Americans adults suffer from some form of mental illness.  Among Exonerees the rate is much higher.  Fear, anxiety, and depression are natural consequences of being wrongfully accused, convicted, imprisoned, sometimes for decades, for a crime someone else committed.  Sometimes no crime even occurred.

Exonerees are not entitled to the same benefits and services that the “rightfully” convicted are. According to the National Registry of Exonerations most Exonerees have been in custody for, on average, more than eight years by the time they are freed, although it can be months or even years of limbo while the State decides whether or not to pursue a new trial

Imagine being imprisoned for a crime that you didn’t commit and the mental and emotional toll that it takes to live through it and understand why. Or the horror of dealing with an unfamiliar criminal element that may threaten your life each and every day. Both can have severe effects on one’s mental status. Who is tending to the Exoneree’s mental health?  After release anyone leaving prison is challenged to find housing, food, clothing, transportation, and health care. For  those who’ve been  wrongfully convicted the challenges are even greater, and yet the support that is availed to them is most often nonexistent  

Mental health and other services can be difficult to obtain.  Applying for benefits takes time, and in the meantime the Exoneree has to survive. Jobs can be difficult to find under the best of circumstances, but with a criminal conviction it is even more so.  Exonerated or not, the conviction will remain on a background check unless the conviction is court-ordered to be sealed.  It can be a very scary, frustrating period and may cause even further trauma.

As an Ohio Exoneree and nursing graduate student I completed interviews with 250 Exonerees over the course of 5 ½ years and found that nearly every one of us has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

Some detail of what I found: Exonerees had sleep and digestive problems (irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, overeating or anorexia) and were the symptoms most frequently reported. Insomnia was common, although several did sleep excessively, reporting as much as 20 hours/day.  Panic attacks were reported by 11% and were equal in men and women.  Women had more frequent headaches, reporting almost daily muscle tension headache in 27% of the Exonerees.

Self-medicating with alcohol and/or marijuana was reported in nearly 50%.  A few admitted to abusing prescription drugs.  Palpitations, shortness of breath, dry mouth, and sweaty palms were nearly a daily occurrence for 17% of subjects. The combinations of those symptoms varied, with many experiencing two or more symptoms.  Hypertension was common, with 53% requiring daily medication.

I think we all have heard of how awful prison can be. However, the truth is the experience is unimaginable. Magnify that exponentially for a person who has not committed a crime.  The residual effects are palpable and a cry out for therapy and medical assistance. 

There are a host of issues Exonerees are dealing with as they are released from prison. The traumatic stress of wrongful imprisonment is one of them and it appears it is not being readily addressed.

Mental health concerns are on the rise, with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people, Exoneree or not, are experiencing waves of anxiety, depression, and stress during this uncertain time, leaving us more vulnerable to burnout, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma.  Often discussed but infrequently practiced, self-care is critically important during the profound and protracted COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s be nice to ourselves and to others.

But self-care aside, if there is anything at all gleaned from this pandemic, and its impact on one’s mental status. it is the need for programs to address these mental health issues. And, It is as necessary and as important that the Exoneree community get access to those programs as easily and readily as anyone else.

-Virginia “Ginny” Lefever

References:

Allard, C.B., Retrieved 10/09/2020 from https://event.on24.com/eventRegistration/EventLobbyServlet?target=reg20.jsp&referrer=&eventid=2506697&sessionid=1&key=459ADF579B244B7BBD493812F6138C00&regTag=&sourcepage=register

NAMI, 2020.  Retrieved 10/09/2020 from https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Illness-Awareness-Week

Salazar, C. (2016).  National PTSD Awareness Day: An interview with Exoneree and Researcher Ginny Lefever

The National Registry of Exonerations.  University of Michigan Retrieved 10/09/2020 from https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx