Australian mental health and addictions services failing to help ex-prisoners

The lack of adequate and specialist mental health services for ex-prisoners means that even when they seek help after leaving prison, they do not receive sufficient support to prevent them from returning.

Research of more than 1,000 ex-prisoners in Queensland found that those who sought help for their mental health or addiction issues were After likely to end up in prison than those who did not. This is not a causal effect however, it is a reflection of the state of Australian health services.

In a article published in PLOS Onethe research team explains their findings and offers solutions to the growing prison crisis.

For many people, getting out of prison is not necessarily a new beginning. Low income, parole conditions, homelessness, substance abuse issues and mental health issues are barriers to success outside the prison system. This results in a rate of reincarceration by almost 50 percent.

The researchers called for an overhaul of the system to enable faster and more consistent support. It would also save money in the long run – with fewer resources used in prisons and emergency services.

“It’s increasingly clear that by meeting the needs of those most in need, we’re not just helping them, we’re helping ourselves – we’re saving taxpayers’ money and reducing re-incarceration,” says the professor Stuart Kinner, director of the Justice Health Group which covers several universities across Australia, including Curtin University.


Read more: People in prison are left out of universal health targets


Kinner and the team interviewed 1,115 adults released from Queensland prisons between 2008 and 2010 and linked the data with medical and correctional records for two years after their release. Unfortunately, 50% of the participants were returned to prison during the study period, but this allowed the researchers to analyze which of them were using mental health and addiction treatment services.

“Our study is probably the most rigorous to date,” says Kinner.

“This was a very large prospective cohort study…and we also had very detailed information about their engagement in mental health and addictions services.”

The team found that those who had access to services did not fare any better. For those who contacted a drug treatment service, the recidivism rate was three times higher than those who did not.

“In a way, this is a surprising finding, but not entirely surprising,” notes Kinner.

“Many people have insufficient engagement with mental health services after release from prison, and we know that many incarcerated people also have unmet mental health and addictions needs before prison.

“What we’re seeing is a continuation of those same issues once people return to the community, which really speaks to the ineffectiveness of incarceration as a means of trying to change complex social issues.”

Currently, even for those who have never been in prison, it is very difficult to access mental health services, with one in three psychologists unable take on new customers. Add to that low income, unstable housing and the inability to access these services regularly, the game becomes significantly more difficult again.

“We found that these services were most useful if people accessed them within the first 30 days of leaving prison,” says Kinner.

“However, the majority of people who accessed these services in our study only had one or two follow-up appointments, which is usually not enough to resolve the issues that led to their incarceration. in the first place.”

These issues also cannot be divorced from the needs of Indigenous Australians, who are heavily overrepresented in our prison system. Ensuring that services are culturally appropriate is also an important step in reducing these numbers.

“It is unfortunately not a unique problem that, in colonized countries, First Nations people are extraordinarily overrepresented in the criminal justice system,” says Kinner.

Although there is no magic bullet, there are some solutions that the researchers believe could be implemented to be able to solve these problems.

The first is to invest more in welfare and social support, ensuring that prison is only a last resort.

The second is to ensure that mental health and addictions services are provided early and on an ongoing basis, as these issues will never be resolved in one or two sessions.

Finally, for the services to be used, they must be appropriate and non-judgmental.

“For people on parole who may have reporting conditions, it can be difficult to seek help for substance use issues. If someone is released from prison on parole, evidence of a relapse could lead to a return to custody,” says Kinner.

“And then, of course, there’s just the stigma associated with being an ex-prisoner. There is both the shame people may feel and the actual shame or stigma they might feel as someone who has been released from prison.

Donald E. Patel