According to the news, the last of the infamous Angola 3, Albert Woodfox, faces potential release after 43 years of solitary confinement. As of today, he is the longest standing solitary confinement prisoner in history and he may be released as early as this Friday. After decades spent in solitary, there is a very real concern about his ability to reenter society due to the impact of his confinement on his mental health. You see, in order to maintain good mental health, all human beings require two very basic things: social interaction and meaningful activity. Woodfox has been receiving neither of these for a very long time. Keeping someone in solitary confinement puts him or her at very serious risk of descending into irreversible mental illness. We don’t function well as human beings when we’re in isolation.
While most maximum-security prisons utilize solitary confinement for prisoners convicted of heinous crimes, some people actually create their own solitary holding cell within their homes by cutting off friends and family. They physically isolate themselves from society refusing to have even minimal contact. Others detach themselves without physical seclusion. They build their solitary confinement unit in their mind. These people might go to work, church, and family gatherings but never really interact with the people they meet. While they are around other people, they are still alone. This self-imposed solitary confinement is just as damaging.
All types of solitary confinement can have dire consequences. Basic symptoms of long-term seclusion can occur after as little as 15 days. These symptoms include high anxiety, panic attacks, depression, paranoia, disordered thinking, anger, compulsive actions, perceptual distortions, psychosis, self-harm, and the overall decline of cognitive function. When left alone for extended periods, people’s minds move toward stupor and delirium. After a certain point, recovery may not be possible. Don’t let this happen to you!
It doesn’t matter what caused you to cut yourself off from the world, in order to preserve your mental health, you need to take purposeful steps to include others in your life. If associating with existing friends and family does not make you happy or is not healthy, develop a new, healthy core group of friends to spend time with. Social isolation can be disabling so you must actively fight the downward spiral into depression and ever-increasing anxiety by going out into the world every day to experience life.
Engage in conversation. Find someone every day to have a conversation with. Discuss the weather, music, or the latest book you are reading. Phone calls, texts, emails, and social media posts do not count. True social interactions help us monitor and adjust our behavior. They give us confidence because other people validate our existence. Without them, we cease to be who we are.
Don’t live your life is solitary confinement. Wake up every day and try to find joy in the world around you.