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Coping with incarceration: examining the longitudinal relationship between individual coping styles and mental health outcomes

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The authors report on a study that examines whether changes in coping styles, specifically, adapting in dysfunctional ways, throughout the first year of incarceration influence the mental health symptoms during the first six and 12 months of incarceration.


Experiencing incarceration leads to increased rates of stress that result in a variety of negative physical, mental, and emotional outcomes. However, little research focuses on how individuals vary in their coping responses to stressful life events, like imprisonment. This study extends prior research by examining whether changes in coping styles throughout the first year of incarceration influence mental health symptomology at six- and 12-months post-placement. Using longitudinal data collected via semi-structured interviews with incarcerated men, this study measures changes in coping strategies and their effect on psychological well-being using the SCL-90-R. The authors used ordinary least squares regression models to regress mental health symptomology on residual change scores of coping strategies. Changes in dysfunctional coping during the first six and 12 months of placement were associated with increased levels of adverse mental health symptoms. Changes in emotion- and problem-focused coping were not associated with mental health symptomology. The authors’ research illustrates the need to continue exploration into individual responses to stressful events, such as initial incarceration, and suggests that prison systems should be designed in ways that decrease the need to adapt in dysfunctional ways, while providing opportunities for incarcerated people to cope in more productive ways. Publisher Abstract Provided

Date Published: January 1, 2022