Mataka Askari lives in Columbia and works as a certified peer specialist for Burrell Behavioral Health, but before that – he spent 23 and a half years in prison.
He spoke about post-incarceration syndrome, a form of PTSD specific to those who have been in prison, and some of the ways it impacts his life every day.
Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words. You can view more conversations at missourihealthtalks.org.
Mataka Askari: At first, I thought it was a dream. So, it was surreal because, so, I was 23 when I went to prison, and I was 47 when I came home, so the world had absolutely changed to me. It had absolutely changed.
I was excited to get out. I had a plan. However, I was nervous. Right? I came to Columbia. I'm from St. Louis. So, I came to an area where I did not have any biological family, but I had a great support system, and so, I'm sure that that's been difficult too, because like, you know, you bring stuff with you out of prison.
Because after 23 and a half years in prison, your mind is molded around a prison lifestyle and environment. So, you have to always stay on guard because violence can erupt at any second, any second, right? And so, you have to always be vigilant, right? You have to always make sure that in the areas that you cannot see things, you may have your back to the wall.
So, it's kind of like a social schizophrenia.
And so, when you live in an environment like that, where you have a suppression of lifestyle choices, where you have to constantly be hyper vigilant, right? When you come out here, right? You don't leave that mindset in prison. You bring it with you.
And so, when I came out and I saw stuff, right? I started to realize that I had been impacted by things. I knew something was wrong, but the turning point for me to identify that was when I went to see the Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish movie, Night School.
We were up in the movie theater, right? It was the end of the summer. It was still kind of – very warm outside because I had gotten out in August. So, this was like early September, and so, as we're in the movie theater watching the movie, everybody enjoying the movie and laughing – except me.
So, I'm looking around and I'm seeing people in hoodies and the first thing I'm thinking is, it's about to be a theater shoot. This is this hypervigilance, right? This is this hypervigilance and this paranoia, and it never dawned on me – “people are wearing hoodies in here because it's cold.”
I didn't think about that. My mind operates in a manner where everything is a potential danger, and that's how I seen things right? And I still see things like that to a degree, and so, I'm still driven by that.
So, let me just be clear – black men from St. Louis don't say they have no mental health issues. We don't deal with that stuff.
“Mental health, man? You better be strong and push through that stuff.”
Ain't no such thing as mental health. You man up, you dig down inside, and you push through that because to admit that you have a mental health issue is seen as a weakness and nobody wants to be seen [with] weakness because weakness means vulnerability. Vulnerability means that somebody preys on you.
And so, like it took a lot for me to admit that these things that I was looking at, were applicable to me and that I had this form of PTSD called post-incarceration syndrome. Man, and I started studying it, and I start reaching out and talking to some of my guys and it’s a bunch of us that got it – a bunch of us.