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Knowing what your patients and colleagues might be going through and acting with empathy can help inform uncomfortable, but important discussions.
I am writing this while recovering from COVID-19. I feel blessed to not have landed in an emergency room or intensive care unit, and I have learned something that has changed my viewpoint about life, freedom, and the mental health ramifications of being in isolation, which has been quite sobering.
My isolation led to thoughts about how people cope in prison living confined in a small space. When you get to eat is controlled, there is no ability to go outside unless it is scheduled time, and there are survival issues in a contained environment while others cope with the same feelings. To me, the worst part is being away from family and friends. Time drags and you feel brain cells are dying from the monotony and boredom.
We have 2.1 million people incarcerated in the United States. I am not going to address wrongful imprisonment or racial discrimination in our justice system in this article but remember it is a big issue as we examine this topic. Today’s focus is about the mental wellbeing of 2.1 million people living in a box. The bedroom I was isolated in was 2-3 times the size of a cell. And yet, it took a mental health toll on me. I am not an emotional person normally. Tears are a foreign concept, but one day of illness was rough. I could not stop crying even though I did not feel depressed, anxious, or worried that I was going to die. The next day, I was irrationally angry the entire day. Again, this was not an emotion in my usual repertoire of feelings, but these mood swings were eye opening. Then, my phone was not working, so my contact with the outside world consisted of my husband doing a no contact delivery of food and watching television alone.
Why do I share this? Because you may have a colleague who has an incarcerated family member. I know this is not something we talk about, but it is important to be aware of. Let us estimate 10 times the number of incarcerated are immediate family members who are suffering as well. So, that would be 21 million people. I know I am estimating on the low end, but you get the point. Colleagues do not necessarily share that they have a loved one in the system.
How can you be a support to your colleague if you do not know they are dealing with this? I wish I had the magic answer for that, but even as a social worker, I do not. What I can say is that sensitivity to current events can either cement or fragment your relationship with someone carrying this secret.
We live in a world where we do have free speech and the ability to share our thoughts. Unfortunately, the last couple of years we have seen how something so important has shifted, and it is now no longer taboo to be insensitive about any topic; race, gender, orientation, economic status, etc. In the workplace, we discourage talks about politics, religion, and sex as these topics can ignite a hostile workplace, but it still happens. Your colleagues are your work family. Chances are there have been conversations about police brutality, abortion, baby formula shortages, and other current events because we are not in a vacuum. My goal is not to stop those kinds of conversations. Instead, remember that you have colleagues who may have secrets. Whether it is a family member in jail or if they are struggling financially and do not want anyone to know, we need to be kind.
Being kind is crucial as we move forward with our lives. My belief is that free speech is a wonderful thing. A gift. Something precious that has responsibilities tied to it. We can learn from each other if it is a safe place. But, for all those dental professionals dealing with our legal system, be sensitive in your conversations about current events. Know that not everyone feels the same way about the police and our legal system.
I do not have the answers. These are just the thoughts of a COVID-19 patient who had a lot of time to think about life and what I take for granted. Do not forget those who are struggling. Be a safe place for your colleagues who are dealing with the legal system to have a work family that supports you. This is what COVID-19 taught me.
Do you have someone incarcerated? If so, do your coworkers know? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I would like to hear your story.