Psychotherapy and despair in the prison setting

Joanna Gee, Derek Loewenthal, Julia Cayne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


PURPOSE: The purpose of this paper is to outline research which aimed to explore psychotherapists' experience of working with despair, in the UK prison setting, through a qualitative phenomenological approach. Within the forensic psychological literature, despair is considered a pathology, associated with suicide and self-harm, resulting from the prisoners histories and the coercive prison setting. In turn, therapeutic writings outline the importance of therapy in the prison setting with despair in providing coping skills, containment and learning opportunities for the prisoners involved.

DESIGN/METHODOLOGY/APPROACH: Within the study, ten psychotherapists were interviewed as to their experience of working with clients in despair in the prison setting. The data were analysed via the phenomenological research method Empirical Phenomenological Analysis (EPA), and a secondary analysis through reverie.

FINDINGS: Through the analysis by EPA, despair emerged in the prison setting as a destabilising phenomenon to which there was no protocol for working with it. Participants also described the prisoners' despair and the despairing prison setting, touching on their own sense of vulnerability and despair. However, drawing on the secondary analysis by reverie, the researcher also became aware of how the phenomenon of despair emerged not simply through the said, but also through the intersubjective.

ORIGINALITY/VALUE: It was therefore through the secondary analysis by reverie that the importance of the attendance to aspects of intersubjectivity in prison research emerged. This paper contributes to the therapeutic writings on despair in the prison setting, alongside holding implications for qualitative research in the prison setting.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)141-56
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Prisoner Health
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Burnout, Professional
  • Clinical Competence
  • Criminal Psychology
  • Depressive Disorder
  • Humans
  • Prisoners
  • Prisons
  • Professional-Patient Relations
  • Psychotherapy
  • United Kingdom
  • Journal Article

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