Do Prison Inmates Cope with Psychological Distress Well: A Qualitative Study Among Prison Inmates in Sri Lanka

Amila Suranga M
Directorate of Policy Analysis and Development, Ministry of Health, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Janaki Vidanapathirana
Directorate of Policy Analysis and Development, Ministry of Health, Colombo, Sri Lanka


Plum Analytics


Psychological distress is more common among the prison population than in the general population. This is due to overcrowding, various forms of violence, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activity, isolation from social networks, insecurity about future prospects and inadequate health services, especially mental health services, in prisons. A qualitative study was carried out in 2019 among sixteen prison inmates representing all types of prison institutions in Sri Lanka with the aim of identifying coping strategies of psychological distress. Among them, eight prison inmates were having psychological distress. Majority were between 27-56 years of age and were male. The main strategies adopted by the prison inmates were engaging in different activities, positive thinking about the future, discussing matters with others, avoiding the situations leading to distress and engaging in religious activities. Mainly, the prison inmates who are not psychologically distressed had used these strategies compared to the prison inmates with psychological distress. None of the prison inmates had identified the importance of counselling in coping the psychological distress. Prison inmates have not been given training or awareness regarding the concept of psychological distress or regarding the coping strategies of psychological distress within the prison institutions. Therefore, it is important to include awareness sessions and practical sessions on psychological distress and coping strategies to the introductory awareness sessions conducted for the prison inmates at the time of entry to a prison institution.


  • Prison Inmates,
  • Psychological Distress,
  • Coping,
  • Mental Health


  1. Armiya’u, A.Y., Obembe, A., Audu, M.D., & Afolaranmi, T.O. (2013). Prevalence of psychiatric morbidity among inmates in Jos maximum security prison. Open Journal of Psychiatry, 3(1), 12–17.
  2. Bland, R.C., Newman, S.C., Thompson, A.H., & Dyck, R.J. (1998). Psychiatric Disorders in the Population and in Prisoners. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 21(3), 273–279.
  3. Brinded, P.M.J., Simpson, A.I.F., Laidlaw, T.M., Fairley, N., & Malcolm, F. (2001). Prevalence of Psychiatric Disorders in New Zealand Prisons: A National Study. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 35(2), 166–173.
  4. Brooke, D., Taylor, C., & Maden, J.G. (1996). Point prevalence of mental disorder in unconvicted male prisoners in England and Wales. British Medical Journal, 313,1524–1527.
  5. Chahal, S., Rana, S., & Singh, P. (2016). Impact of coping on mental health of convicted prisoners. The International Journal of Indian Psychology, 3(2), 66-80.
  6. Dachew, B.A., Fekadu, A., Kisi, T., Yigzawa, N., & Bisetegn, T.A. (2015). Psychological distress and associated factors among prisoners in North West Ethiopia: cross sectional study. International journal of mental health systems, 9 (39).
  7. Drapeau, A., Marchand, A., & Beaulieu-Prévost, D. (2012). Epidemiology of psychological distress. Mental illnesses-understanding, prediction and control, 69 (2), 105-106.
  8. Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Misnistry of Health., (2011). National Mental Health Strategy 2012/13-2015/2016. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
  9. Ibrahim, A., Esena, R. K., Aikins, M., O’keefe, A. M. & McKay, M. M. (2015). Assessment of mental distress among prison inmates in Ghana’s correctional system: a cross sectional study using the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 9(17).
  10. Ireland, J. L., Boustead, R., & Ireland, C. A. (2005). Coping style and psychological health among adolescent prisoners: a study of young and juvenile offenders. Journal of Adolescence, 28(3), 411–423.
  11. Luke, R. J., Daffern, M., Skues, J. L., Trounson, J. S., Pfeifer, J. E., & Ogloff, J. R. P. (2021). The Effect of Time Spent in Prison and Coping Styles on Psychological Distress in Inmates. The Prison Journal, 101(1), 60–79.
  12. Maschi, T., Viola, D., & Koskinen, L. (2015). Trauma, stress, and coping among older adults in prison: Towards a human rights and intergenerational family justice action agenda. Traumatology, 21(3), 188-200.
  13. Mirowsky, J., & Ross, C.E. (2002). Measurement for a human science. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43 (2), 152-170.
  14. Nseluke, M.T., & Siziya, S. (2011). Prevalence and Socio-Demographic Correlates for Mental Illness Among Inmates at Lusaka Central Prison, Zambia. Medical Journal of Zambia, 38(2), 3-7.
  15. Phillips, M.R. (2009). Is distress a symptom of mental disorders, a marker of impairment, both or neither?. World Psychiatry, 8(2), 91-92.
  16. Qouta, S., Punamäki, R.L., & El Sarraj, E. (1997). Prison experiences and coping styles among Palestinian men. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 3(1), 19–36.
  17. Rose, A., Trounson, J., Louise, S., Shepherd, S & Ogloff, J. (2020). Mental Health, Psychological Distress, and Coping in Australian Cross-Cultural Prison Populations. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 33(5), 794-803.
  18. Samuelson, M., Carmody, J., Kabat-Zinn, J., & Bratt, M.A. (2007). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Massachusetts Correctional Facilities. The Prison Journal, 87 (2), 254-268.
  19. Schneider, K., Richters, J., Butler, T., Yap, L., Richards, A., Grant, L., Smith, A. & Donovan, B. (2011). Psychological distress and experience of sexual and physical assault among Australian prisoners. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 21(5), 333–349.
  20. Shulman, E. P., & Cauffman, E. (2011). Coping While Incarcerated: A Study of Male Juvenile Offenders. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(4), 818–826.
  21. Van Harreveld, F., Van der Pligt, J., Claassen, L., & Van Dijk, W. W. (2007). Inmate Emotion Coping and Psychological and Physical Well-Being: The Use of Crying Over Spilled Milk. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(5), 697–708.
  22. Viertiö, S., Kiviruusu, O., Piirtola, M., Kaprio, J., Korhonen, T., Marttunen, M & Suvisaari, J. (2021). Factors contributing to psychological distress in the working population, with a special reference to gender difference. BMC Public Health, 21, 611.
  23. Watson, D. (2009). Differentiating the mood and anxiety disorders: A quadripartite model. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 5, 221-247.



Article Details

Volume 5, Issue 2, Year 2022

Published 2022-06-30


Metrics Loading ...