Women in Critical Condition:  The State of Our Health and the State of Our Mind

Presented by:  Michelle Cole Barnes

There is no doubt in my mind that women truly are the backbone of our society, keeping the home, family and community together.  We wear so many hats, literally the butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker. So many demands, pressures and  unrealistic expectations, that we often put ourselves last on the list.  For far too long, we have ignored our own health and sanity.  It’s time to take personal responsibility for our health and happiness and let’s stop the madness. We are in critical condition.  I believe the present state of our health and welfare as rural women is critical.  Full recovery is possible but the prescribed treatment will require intensive care with a team of specialist that will utilize a holistic approach, both on a local and global scale.



In the state of Alabama, the top five leading causes of death are:  heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases and accidents.

Some Alabama State Health Facts

Obesity Rate:

            Perecentage of adults who are overweight or obese: 67.9%
Overweight rate for adults by sex, 2008:  male 74.0%  female 57.6%
Percentage of adults who participate in moderate or vigorous physical activities, 2007: 41.7%

Health Care:

           Percentage of women age 19 - 64  UNINSURED:  18.1%        

Mental Health:

Percentage of females that report poor mental health: 38%
Percentage of males that report poor mental health: 27.1%
Number of adults with Severe Mental Illness (2002): 182,488
Number of state/county psychiatric hospital In-pt beds (1998): 1,195

Source: statehealthfacts.org, Alabama.

Women are caregivers by nature-- it’s in our nature to nurture, to build, protect, to serve. Women by nature have the uncanny ability to multitask unlike any creature in earth. Like myself, many of us are caregivers by profession.  I believe that when God made woman, He broke the mold.  We are wonderfully and fearfully made-- “with sugar and spice and everything nice”, made with excellence, splendor, crowned with wisdom and adorned with beauty.  But there is a potentially fatal flaw in this outstanding vision of loveliness.

 According to healthstatus2010.com the State of Alabama has a female population of 2.3 million women.  The leading cause of death for women in the state is heart disease and stoke.  Alabama tends to rank among the highest rates for death for leading causes, including heart disease, cancer and stroke. Alabama continues to have one of the worst records in related risk factors:  high blood pressure, obesity and no physical activity.             

 However, there have been significant health improvements in a couple of areas.  Alabama ranks among the highest proportion of residents who have had routine check-ups within the past two years.  Alabama also ranks among the top 20 best states for two preventive measures: recent Pap smears and mammograms. (source: www.healthstatus2010.com/ChartbookData_ list.asp)


Did you know that women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population?  There are 200,000 women in prison and jail in the United States and more than one million women under criminal supervision.  Two-thirds of the women in prison are women of color.  Two thirds of the women in prison are there for non-violent offenses, many for drug-related crimes.

The Alabama prison system is seriously overcrowded, understaffed, few rehabilitative services available and profoundly under-funded to say the least.  According to the Women’s Prison Association, Alabama has one of highest incarceration rates for women in the U.S. and has seen more than 700% increase in the female prison population since 1977 when female prison population was 223.

I was extremely disturbed when I read an report prepared by the ACLU entitled, “Women in Prison: an Overview” and also the 2005 Policy report on the Alabama Prison Crisis written by Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis.  I encourage everyone to read these articles in their entirety.

 In an ACLU women’s rights report on “Women in Prison: An Overview,” the authors state that, “Nearly two-third are mothers with seventy-five percent of these incarcerated mothers being the primary care givers.  Nearly 75% of women in the criminal justice system were using drugs prior to their arrest and most of these women had little to no access to any form of drug treatment.  Women in prison are more likely to suffer from a mental illness than men in prison. The vast majority of women in prison have been victims of violence prior to their incarceration including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and child abuse.” 

 In the “Alabama Prison Crisis,” the author discusses the overuse of the habitual felony offender law for nonviolent and low-level offenses that “exposes defendants to sentences that are up to ten times the sentences permitted for first-offenders.” Without a doubt, our criminal justice system is in critical condition.

For several years, I have had the opportunity to go to Julia Tutweiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama as a motivational speaker under the Be Free, Stay Free Program. Tutweiler is the only state prison for women in Alabama.  Built in 1942 for a capacity of 400 inmates, later the prison was expanded to house approx. 956 females.  Today, Tutweiler Prison for Women holds about 2300. As of March 1, 2010 there are 198 men and 5 women on death row in Alabama (Alabama Department of Corrections). Currently, construction is underway to build a federal women’s prison in Aliceville where I live, approximately three miles from my home.


 Zooming down the expressway of LIFE, I just kept driving the car, while the “maintenance required” light is on.  Ignoring the light before me, I just kept on driving myself, pushing myself to meet the needs of others, the pressures of work, not to mention the responsibilities of my home and business. So preoccupied with the hustle and bustle of the daily grind--that is until I crashed.  Now I’m facing a serious health crisis.  Like it or not, something has got to change, and change immediately.

 In 2009, I had developed a serious illness and was in critical condition for a while. There was a long, slow and very painful recovery period. During that time, I had come to the realization that I had put everyone’s needs, problems or issues before my own.  But I later, when I examined the madness in my own lifestyle, I came to the shocking conclusion that I had forgotten to do something very important. Everyday, I made the same mistake.  I missed the same appointment.   I would like to think I’m very observant and intelligent.  How could I have made this grave mistake? I have committed a great sin, not against my husband, family or my neighbor.  But the great sin, I had committed was against-- myself. You see, I had forgotten to put myself on my own schedule.

 When I look back, I could not remember when was the last time, I put Michelle on the schedule.  I was not on my own agenda.  It’s always somebody else or something else.  I had just given and given until I had given out and there was nothing left to give.    True, I had done great works and accomplished great things and helped many people.  I thought I was taking good care of myself --I went to my doctor’s appointments, took my meds, tried to improve my eating habits and regularly got my hair and nails done to maintain my appearance. But what I really needed was balance in my life, decrease the deadly stress - getting plenty of rest, adequate sleep, play, and regular, consistent exercise.  I have made a commitment to myself to strive for balance, be fabulous, fit (body, mind and spirit) and live courageously and abundantly in every area of my life.  The sky’s the limit.   I want to live so I can enjoy the ride.  Destiny is calling me.



1.  Each woman must take personal responsibility in her health and become an active member of her health care team. Stop making excuses.  Stay active. Make total health and wellness top priority.  Develop healthier habits.

2. Put yourself first and make the necessary lifestyle changes that will bring you to optimal health in body, mind, and spirit.  Consult professionals as necessary.

3.  Enlist friends and family to support you in your quest.  Use the buddy system. Healthy families and Healthy Communities. Together we can make it happen!

4. Healthcare reform is crucial.  Affordable, quality healthcare for everyone.  Investing in preventive care and improving chronic care management, access to services/quality providers is key.  Incentives to healthcare professionals that work in rural underserved areas.

5. Stop wasting tax-payers money by over incarcerating nonviolent and low- level offenders. Reinvest this money in the community to create jobs by utilizing unemployed school teachers, executives and other professionals to community and faith-based organizations need to  offer the courts good preventive and reentry programs and services in the local community as an alternative to prison.

6.  Invest in education, resources and funding for community and faith-based alternatives to prison, with job training, quality substance abuse programs and mental health treatment for persons with criminal justice issues, especially those who are nonviolent and low-level offenders with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.   Provide incentives to companies that will give “second chances and fresh starts” to those persons who have criminal justice histories (i.e. persons on probation, parole etc) or completed above listed training/programs.

7.  Adapt healthy eating habits and moderate physical activities into our families’ daily lives.  Keep our kids active, encouraging sports, the fine arts, and healthy nutritious lunches in schools.

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