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Salud mental

versão impressa ISSN 0185-3325


GALVAN, Jorge et al. La importancia del apoyo social para el bienestar físico y mental de las mujeres reclusas. Salud Ment [online]. 2006, vol.29, n.3, pp.68-74. ISSN 0185-3325.


Social support has been useful as a key axis for different approaches on how positive human relations and social networks help the individual to achieve states of relative well-being and overcome stressful events which they have to cope with in their lives. This is particularly important in the case of imprisoned women, who generally lack social support, since many of them are abandoned by their relatives and friends with the consequent impact that this has on their physical and emotional well-being.

Support from family and friends during imprisonment can imply an enormous difference in the living conditions of imprisoned women. It has been proved that the social support individuals receive through their social networks is a key factor for their well-being, specially at times of stress, transition or crisis, and protects them from the emergence of physical and psychic disorders.

For these reasons, the objective of this article is to identify the main sources of social support in convicted women at two penitentiary centers in Mexico City and to determine whether the presence or absence of social support has an impact on their physical and mental well-being.


This is a descriptive field study carried out at two women's prisons in Mexico City: The East Preventive Center for Women and the Tepepan Center of Social Readjustment for Women. The type of sampling was non-probabilistic and selected by convenience. The final sample comprised of a total of 212 women. This study included current and lifetime female abusers of alcohol, tobacco and drugs, aged between 18 and 65, who could read and write. The exclusion criteria used were having a psychiatric disorder or a physical disability that would prevent them from completing the interview.

The instrument used for compiling the information was a semi-structured interview consisting of 62 pages on various areas from the lives of female prisoners. The following sections of the questionnaire were analyzed for this article: a) sociodemographic characteristics, b) social networks, c) depression, and d) perception of physical and emotional health.

The procedure followed to gather information on the female prisoners began with the establishment of an agreement with the General Administration of Prevention and Social Readjustment of the Federal District. Through this agreement, the mental health team, comprising psychiatrists, psychologists and anthropologists -previously trained in the use of a structured interview-, were granted access to the correctional facility. The interviews were carried out after the women had given their informed consent and told of the objectives of the study. The interviews lasted two hours on average, although on some occasions they took up to four sessions of two hours. The field work lasted two years.


Socio-demographic profile: The majority of the interviewees were under 40 years old (84%). They had low schooling (with only 41% having completed elementary school), were unmarried (48.6%), and most of them did not live either with a partner or an offspring (40.5%). A total of 58.6% had left home when they were young and nearly 40% lived on the streets. Before being admitted to the institution, they had been shopkeepers (29.5%), employees (21.9%), housewives (13.8%), manual workers(7.1%) and informal workers (5.7%).

Contact with relatives and friends in the past month: A high number of the women in prison reported not having received any visits during the past month, with only a small percentage receiving daily visits. Almost 60% of the women declared not receiving any visits from significant figures, such as their partners or children.

Frequency of visits and perception of physical and mental health: A third of the women rated their physical and mental health as not so good. When frequency of visits was linked to the women's perception of health, it was found that women, who had not received any visits over the past month, tended to evaluate their physical health more negatively (bad-mediocre) than those who received visits (43.5% versus 38.5%). A similar percentage was observed in the evaluation of their mental health (47.8% versus 45.3%).

Frequency of visits and depression: When relating the frequency of visits to the presence and/or absence of depression, it was found that women who had not received visits during the past month experienced more depressive episodes (72.7% versus 61.1%). Nevertheless, these differences were not significant.


One of the most outstanding aspects observed in this study was the high level of abandonment suffered by the inmates, which confirms findings from other studies about women being abandoned by their loved ones more often than men after commiting a crime.

The study found that in terms of accessibility, the physical location of penitentiary centers, is not a factor that fully explains the abandonment suffered by these women, since most of the inmates' relatives and friends live in the same city and even in the same neighborhood where the penitentiary center is located.

A high presence of present depressive episodes was also observed in female prisoners, both among those who reported receiving visits and those who did not. A possible answer here is that imprisonment itself is a highly stressful event for those undergoing it and the support received from relatives and friends is not enough to offset the effects of confinement.


The results of this study indicate there is a certain positive association between the social support female prisoners received from relatives and friends and their physical and mental well-being. Nevertheless, this cannot be considered a causal relationship, a conclusion which agrees with other reports regarding the positive influence of social support on prisoners' well-being. However, it is also suggested that this is a complex relation that must be investigated more in depth, since this support does not necessarily has the same effect on all individuals.

One of the main recommendations deriving from these results is the need to make prisoners' relatives aware of the importance of promoting and maintaining a continuous and permanent contact with them, since this type of support usually brings about an enormous benefit for their physical and emotional well-being. It is also necessary for penitentiary institutions to reconsider the suspension of visits as a means of punishment and control, since this entails a series of negative consequences for the internal population and the institution itself.

Palavras-chave : Female prisoners; social support; physical and mental health.

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