Emotional Well-Being and the Reentry Period: Quantitative and Qualitative Data

Table of Contents:

Mothers reentering the community following corrections involvement experience varying levels of emotional strain in the process of either reuniting with their children or easing guilt from not being able to gain custody or rebuild relationships. In Wave 1, actively parenting mothers were initially less depressed than non-parenting mothers. During the later stages of reentry, however, we found that depression symptoms appeared to increase, at least initially, based on whether mothers were actively parenting children. This was seen by comparing the reported depression symptoms (assessed via the BDI) of women who lived with their children to those who did not live with their children. Mothers who did not live with their children at all between the Wave 1 and 2 interviews reported a reduction in depression symptoms compared to mothers who patented. We also found that the amount of time that mothers patented was positively correlated with depression symptoms between the Wave 1 and 2 interviews. Given our small sample size and lack of a representative sample, we do not report statistical significance, but instead highlight the comparatively large magnitude differences between groups, suggesting that these differences might indeed be meaningful for these women and may also have meaning for the larger population of correc-tions-involved mothers.

Although Laub and Sampson did not focus on depression as an outcome, our findings appear to counter Laub and Sampson’s (2003; 1995) argument that stronger familial ties provide informal social support that improves outcomes for corrections-involved adults. Our findings would appear to support Pearlin’s stress model (1981, 2005), however, in that Pearlin’s model suggests that parents experience greater depression symptoms compared to their non-parenting counterparts in a general population. Applying Pearlin’s model, mothers, and especially single mothers, experience greater levels of depression compared to non-parents and fathers due to higher levels of stressors experienced by single mothers; these stressors arise from poverty, difficulty parenting, and the lack of resources to mitigate stressors. Depression symptoms, according to this model, are associated with a greater burden of parenting and are exacerbated by having fewer parenting resources, including social support and finances. The vast majority of the women in our sample are single mothers, and nearly all are resource deprived with weak social supports, which is congruent with the stress model. One caution is that in contrast to the general population of parents and non-parents most often studied using the stress model, our sample compares parenting and non-parenting mothers—considering non-parenting mothers to be similar to people without any children—which is an imperfect comparison. The premise that active parenting leads to greater stress, which can lead to poorer mental health outcomes, nevertheless informs our findings.

While this chapter focused on depression symptoms, it is important to note that many women in our sample reported experiencing high incidence of other mental health outcomes, including PTSD, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and more. They also reported high incidence of mental health challenges among people they and their children associated with, including family members, their children’s fathers, and others. Providing resources to improve their mental health outcomes, and how to better cope with the mental health statuses of their children and family members, may also prove essential in supporting women during the reentry period.

Conclusion

Interviews with parenting and non-parenting mothers suggest that challenges in the reentry process and their effects on emotional well-being are exacerbated by actively parenting children. Both mothers who were actively parenting, and those who were not, experienced reentry challenges, including maintaining sobriety, housing stability, and addressing lingering legal issues. Women actively parenting their children, however, often reported that these challenges escalated with the additional responsibility of parenting, particularly following a traumatic separation. Inactively parenting mothers, while facing similar stressors, more often reported that accepting that their children were in safe and stable placements freed them to work on personal obstacles. Whether they chose not to parent their children or if they were not allowed to, guilt and shame was commonly reported. Mothers who were given support to reconcile these feelings appeared to have a better chance at positive mental health outcomes in the initial years after being released from incarceration.

Despite some of the benefits of not having custody of children that were outlined here, these data also supported that parenthood can provide motivation in a mother’s recovery process, perhaps even by serving as protective “social bonds” as posited by Sampson and Laub (1995, 2003). It appears that most of the strain related to parenting, and subsequent mental health outcomes, was related to the lack of resources, including finances and social support for this primarily single mother population, which strongly supports Pearlin’s stress model (1981). This suggests that for women to experience the benefits that parenting might bring them in this transitional stage, social supports need to be in place to improve their likelihood of a successful reintegration into the community. Resources that our sample could have used included affordable housing, respite care, and mental health counseling for mothers and children that specifically addresses the trauma related to separation. Programs that supported these mothers’ relationships with their children while incarcerated appeared to ease the stresses of reuniting after a long separation. Per Pearlin’s (1981) model, reducing the burdens that come with parenting by providing these supports will improve mental health outcomes that will then support overall healthier community integration for corrections-involved women.

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