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Deuchar on Mental Health, Incarceration and Reoffending

In this article Ross Deuchar, co-author of Young People and Social Control, explores the associations between poor mental health, incarceration and subsequent reoffending

Recent reports suggest that over two-thirds of inmates in English prisons suffer from mental health disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Similarly, in Scotland it is thought that at least 80% of inmates have mental health problems and there were over 400 reports of self-harm in prisons there last year. The associations between poor mental health, incarceration and subsequent reoffending are clear, and as a nation we need to do more to tackle these issues head on.

We can look towards Scandinavian countries for inspiration. In Denmark, not only are there many more open prison places available across the country, there are also some innovative prison and post-release interventions in place, such as breathing, yoga and meditation programmes. The Breathe SMART programme was founded there in 2000, and has the specific goal of teaching and coaching people to use Sudarshan Kriya (Breathe Smart, 2018). Drawing on the teachings of the Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, this consists of slow, medium and fast cycles of breathing practiced for a total duration of around 30 minutes combined with hatha yoga postures and meditative practices (Brown and Gerbarg, 2005a; Vedamurthachar et al., 2006; Pandya, 2016). Its sister programme, Prison Smart, teaches these same techniques to inmates in Danish prisons.

I recently conducted in-depth interviews with 12 Danish men with a history of violent criminal offending and who had recent experience of participating in these programmes. Most of the men were in their thirties and forties, with some younger or a little older. Their criminal convictions included those for gang-related disorder, armed robbery, weapon possession, attempted murder and murder. All had been practicing Sadarshan Kriya and the related practices for some time when I met them. While some were still incarcerated when I met them, others had recently been released and had continued to engage in the Breathe Smart programme out in the community.

All of the men explained that engaging in the practices had had a profound impact on their ability to manage feelings of aggression and anger and deal with potentially destructive thoughts, feelings and stressful situations more productively. Some talked about the intense feelings of happiness, joy and peace that they had begun to experience after practicing the techniques for some time. They felt that engaging with the practices had enabled them to get more in touch with innate, softer feelings associated with love and kindness for self and others, and to have an increased focus on empathy.

Prior to involvement in the programme, the men admitted that their whole sense of masculinity was constructed around the need to be aggressive, and to command respect through violence. But after engaging with the breathing, yoga and meditation practices for some time, many began to associate ‘doing masculinity’ with peace, harmony and being good fathers and family men. As one participant said, ‘you are not born a tough guy … I was born like a creature who was open and full of love and creativity … and when you start to really feel your meditation then you get some small bits of being that way come back.’ (Deuchar, 2018).

The most profound insight from my research was the revelation by some men that participating in the breathing and meditation practices enabled them to stop taking prescribed medication for mental health conditions. For example, one former gang member described the way in which he had been taking anti-depressants for several years in prison, but had stopped taking the pills when he started the Prison SMART programme. He smiled when he said, ‘I got therapy from healing myself … it’s like putting on new glasses … you see the world differently.’ Similar insights emerged from several of the others I interviewed. These men were evidently drawing upon these practices as an alternative and safe antidepressant therapy (Janakiramaiah et al. 2000; Brown and Gerbarg 2005a, 2005b; Vedamurthachar et al. 2006; Pandya 2016).

Given the high rates of psychological problems, social pressures and reduced wellbeing experienced by many inmates in prisons, the insights from this small-scale Danish study are highly pertinent. The use of ascetic-spiritual interventions like Sadarshan Kriya, yoga and meditation could be an important means of tackling the root causes of violent offending and preventing reoffending post-release. Research and policy surrounding mental health interventions with offenders has often focused on psychological and psychosocial treatments, but these are costly, and often found to be stigmatizing, time-consuming and emotionally demanding for male inmates (Bilderbeck et al., 2013). Programmes like Prison Smart and Breathe Smart may offer a more economically efficient and socially acceptable alternative. Within the context of prison and post-prison offender support and rehabilitation, we can clearly gain a lot of inspiration from places like Denmark.


Breathe Smart (2016). Website. Available online. http://www.breathesmart.co.uk/  Accessed on 4th September 2017.

Brown, R. P. and Gerbarg, P. L. (2005a). Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part I neurophysiologic model. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(1), 189-201.

Brown, R. P. and Gerbarg, P. L. (2005b). Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part II—clinical applications and guidelines.  The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(4), 711-717.

Deuchar, R. (2018) (in press) Gangs and Spirituality: Global Perspectives. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Janakiramaiah, N., Gangadhar, B. N., Murthy, P. J. N. V., Harish, M. G., Subbakrishna, D. K. and Vedamurthachar, A. (2000). Antidepressant efficacy of Sudashan Kriya Yoga (SKY) in melancholia: A randomised comparison with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and imipramine. Journal of Affective Disorders, 57, 255-259.

Pandya, A. P. (2016). Sudarshan Kriya of the Art of Living Foundation: Applications to social work practice. Practice: Social Work in Action, 28(2), 133-154.

Vedamurthachar, A., Janakiramaiah, N., Hegde, J. M., Shetty, T. K., Subbakrishna, D. K., Sureshbabu, S. V. and Gangadhar, B. N. (2006). Antidepressant efficacy and hormonal effects of Sudarshana Kriya Yoga (SKY) in alcohol dependent individuals. Journal of Affective Disorders, 94, 249-253.

Professor Ross Deuchar is Director of the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on Crime, Policing and Social Justice within the University of the West of Scotland and author of the forthcoming Palgrave Macmillan book, Gangs and Spirituality: Global Perspectives.