1 in 3 prisoners have a history of mental health problems

Almost one-third of prison entrants in Australia have a history of mental health problems, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, The mental health of prison entrants in Australia: 2010, shows that 31% of prison entrants report having ever been told by a doctor, nurse, psychiatrist or psychologist that they had a mental health disorder (including drug and alcohol abuse).

‘This is about 2.5 times higher than the general population,’ said AIHW spokesperson Tim Beard.

This study uses previously released data from the 2010 National Prisoner Health Census. At the time of the census, 16% of prison entrants reported that they were taking medication for a mental health disorder and 14% reported experiencing very high levels of distress.

‘Prison entrants with a history of a mental health disorder have poorer socioeconomic and health characteristics than those without,’ Mr Beard said.

‘For example, two-thirds were either unemployed or unable to work due to disability, age or other condition.’

Prison entrants with a history of a mental health disorder also had more extensive criminal histories—about one-third had been incarcerated 5 or more times in an adult prison.

This group was also more likely to report engaging in risky health behaviours such as illicit drug use, smoking, and drinking alcohol at extreme levels; and half had received a head injury that resulted in a loss of consciousness or blacking out at some point in the past.

‘Risky health behaviours are particularly prevalent among those taking medication for a mental health disorder,’ Mr Beard said.

‘Among these, three-quarters had used illicit drugs in the last 12 months, more than half consumed alcohol at risky levels and nearly 90% smoked.’

About 1 in 3 prison entrants taking medication for a mental health disorder had visited the prison clinic for a mental health issue during the two-week National Prisoner Health Census, with nearly half visiting on three or more occasions.

The report does not include data for New South Wales and Victoria, as they did not participate in the 2010 National Prisoner Health Census.

The AIHW is a major national agency set up by the Australian Government to provide reliable, regular and relevant information and statistics on Australia's health and welfare.

Canberra, 5 July 2012

Further information: Mr Tim Beard, AIHW, tel. 02 6244 1270, mob. 0418 271 395