A new study, led by Siebrecht Vanhooren, faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at The Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, investigates factors associated with posttraumatic growth in prisoners. The results of the quantitative study, conducted in Belgium, indicate that emotional support, religious coping, and searching for meaning are positively associated with posttraumatic growth. The researchers write:
“At the heart of the process that leads to growth lies the attempt to rebuild a new identity and a meaningful life. Searching for new meanings predicted posttraumatic growth in this study. This also means that there is indeed a group of prisoners who embark on an existential quest during incarceration and succeed in acquiring a new set of beliefs during this process.”
Posttraumatic growth is defined as “positive personal changes that emerge after dealing with the adversities of life,” write the authors. They note that posttraumatic growth in prison may appear to contradict the negative impact prison can have on people’s lives and instead suggest that posttraumatic growth is “intertwined with the negative experience of imprisonment itself.” The idea is that “those who are able to transcend their adversity experience profound transformations and improve their resilience toward future distressing life events,” according to the writers.
Previous research on posttraumatic growth in prisoners has used qualitative studies. The authors summarize the findings of these studies:
“Posttraumatic growth in offenders is marked by important changes in self-awareness, in a higher appreciation of relationships, in new purposes and meaning in life, and in a deeper understanding of the severity and consequences of the crime.”
The growth process begins with a deep personal crisis. In qualitative studies, social and emotional support, religion/spirituality, and searching for meaning are coping strategies that have been associated with posttraumatic growth. Avoidance and substance abuse are coping strategies that have been found to inhibit posttraumatic growth.
The purpose of the present study is to identify variables related to posttraumatic growth so prison staff and psychotherapists are better able to foster posttraumatic growth in prisoners. This was the first quantitative study to investigate factors associated with posttraumatic growth in prisoners. The researchers collected data in 2014 from 365 prisoners in Belgium. Participants completed a number of questionnaires on posttraumatic growth, search for meaning, and coping strategies.
The researchers summarize their findings: “Emotional support, religious coping, and search for meaning were positively related with posttraumatic growth. Behavioral disengagement, on the contrary, showed a significant negative relation with posttraumatic growth.”
Also, engaging in psychotherapy and meeting with a chaplain were associated with posttraumatic growth. Prisoners who were incarcerated for longer periods of time also demonstrated greater amounts of posttraumatic growth. The researchers found no correlation between posttraumatic growth and substance abuse.
The researchers note that this was a cross-sectional study, and therefore they could not assess whether factors are causally related to posttraumatic growth. Also, the researchers did not collect data on participant race or sexual orientation, and only included participants who speak Dutch, which may exclude many cultural minorities in Belgium. Therefore, great caution should be taken in generalizing these findings to prisoners in the US, where the majority of prisoners are people of color experiencing systemic racism. In addition, LGBTQ prisoners in the US experience greater levels of mistreatment and psychological distress.
While the study emphasizes the benefits of posttraumatic growth, the researchers highlight that in order to reach this growth, individuals are first experiencing the undesirable, traumatic event of being incarcerated: “posttraumatic growth cannot be taken for granted and does not appear without the initial personal crisis and the subsequent period of trying to make sense of what happened.”
Mental health challenges and suicide are serious issues in prisons. Therefore, programs that support prisoners to connect with others and find meaning in their experiences are greatly needed. The authors hope that by promoting posttraumatic growth, “in this way, we might be able to help those who give up along the road and support those who are on their way to personal change.”
Vanhooren, S., Leijssen, M., & Dezutter, J. (2018). Coping strategies and posttraumatic growth in prison. The Prison Journal. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0032885517753151 (Link)