One of the hot topics at the recent Forensic Mental Health Conference held at Valkenberg Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, was the need for a greater focus on prisoner’s mental health. Last year 30 prisoners committed suicide while behind bars in South Africa. The numbers are even greater in the United States. Prison mental health services in many countries are inadequate and in clear need of reform. This article lists some of the suggestions of the World Health Organization for promoting prison mental health services.

To read a brief article about this topic at the Valkenberg Hospital Forensic Mental Health Conference, please click the link below:

Mental Health in Jails and Prisons

The number of individuals with severe mental illness who are incarcerated in jails and prisons has grown significantly over the last two decades; so much so that prisons may now be the largest providers of mental health services in the United States. That being said, it is still the case that most individuals in need of mental health services in jails and prisons do not receive the care or services that they require. U. S. prisons are neither designed nor equipped for mentally ill prisoners. The ratio of inmates to prison psychologists in the United States has been estimated to be approximately 900:1.

The World Health Organization, in an information sheet on mental health and prisons, noted that prison conditions, in general, are hard on mental health. Overcrowding, violence, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activities, uncertainly about life after prison, isolation from friends and family, and inadequate health services all contribute to poor mental health in prisoners around the world. The increased risk of suicide in prisons is an unfortunate, but common, manifestation of the cumulative effects of these factors.

The World Health Organization developed the following list of 10 strategies that can be used to increase the detection, prevention, and treatment of mental illness in prisons:

  1. Divert people with mental disorders towards the mental health system
  2. Provide prisoners with access to appropriate mental health treatment and care
  3. Provide access to acute mental health care in psychiatric wards of general hospitals
  4. Ensure the availability of psychosocial support and rationally prescribed psychotropic medication
  5. Provide training to staff
  6. Provide information/education to prisoners and their families on mental health issues
  7. Promote high standards in prison management
  8. Ensure that the needs of prisoners are included in national mental health policies and plans
  9. Promote the adoption of mental health legislation that protects human rights
  10. Encourage inter-sectoral collaboration (bringing relevant Ministries together to collaborate)

For more information on this topic, please see the following resources:

The World Health Organization – Mental Health

Standards for Psychology Services in Jails, Prisons, Correctional Facilities, and Agencies

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