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Curtin research reveals lack of mental illness support in prisons

Media release

Health professionals and correctional staff looking after male prisoners with a mental illness feel they are merely “crisis managing” because they lack enough skills, knowledge and resources, research by a Curtin PhD student has found.

The study by Dr Kate Hancock found more than 65 per cent of staff who participated in the study had not received any training in managing mental illnesses.

More than 65 per cent also said they did not feel they had adequate training to have people with a mental illness under their care.

The research, Stories and Stats: A mixed methods study of staff and male prisoner patient experiences of prison based mental health services, interviewed and surveyed 184 health professionals, correctional staff and prisoner patients in 2006 and 2007 at eight West Australian prisons, including metropolitan and regional sites.

Dr Hancock’s research supports other findings that people with a mental illness were over-represented in prison populations and are struggling to function in correctional environments.

“Health professionals in prison suffer from a systematic lack of recognition, support and leadership from both the health and justice spectrums and report they are merely crisis managing prisoners,” Dr Hancock said.

“Over a third of the staff sampled say they are coping day to day, and the majority of staff report they are doing the best they can with the facilities and knowledge they have.”

Insufficient resources, struggling to find a balance between therapy and security, and prison officer role conflict were some of the reasons cited by staff.

“On the positive side of the prison work experience almost three-quarters of the staff participants reported that they are part of a great team who work well together to achieve positive outcomes,” she said.
“Moreover, prisoner patients in the sample reported that prison can be a helping hand providing them with access to some mental health services.”

But Dr Hancock said the findings also demonstrated the complexity and frightening situation experienced by prisoner patients living in prisons, not only coping with a mental illness, but with people who generally did not understand them and with limited services to adequately address their needs.

More than half of the prisoners also reported they were treated differently by other inmates because of their mental illness with many taunted and discouraged from taking their medication.

“There was a general sentiment that individuals with mental health issues are vulnerable and isolated in the prison system,” Dr Hancock said.

The study found a very real perception by prison staff that the number of prisoners with a mental illness was increasing, with the rise attributed to deinstitutionalisation, overburdened community mental health services, and illegal drug use.

Dr Hancock said there was a need for increased mental health services, particularly in regional prisons as well as improved training and professional development for staff.

“There is a need to develop multifaceted and team approached services that are personalised to the individual needs of the mentally ill,” she said.

“Prisons provide a captive audience and an opportunity to work with the mentally ill who unfortunately come into contact with the justice system,” she said.

There is a need to develop a correctional approach to health and mental healthcare delivery because the present model is ineffective.

Dr Hancock said there was also a need to improve community mental health services in order to reduce the number of mentally ill people coming into contact with the justice system.

“Hopefully this is something the outcomes of the Western Australian Mental Health Commission will be able to address,” she said.

Dr Hancock has worked as a public servant for the last seven years. She is also enrolled at Murdoch University where she is studying law. Dr Hancock completed her PhD at the School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work at Curtin this year and is currently writing journal articles to publish her research findings.

Dr Hancock sampled eight metropolitan and regional prisons:

Hakea Prison
Casuarina Prison
Broome Regional Prison
Roebourne Regional Prison
Eastern Goldfields Regional Prison
Greenough Regional Prison
Bunbury Regional Prison
Albany Regional Prison


Denise Cahill, Public Relations, Curtin University
Tel: 08 9266 1931, Mobile: 0401 103 683, Email:

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