In excess of 11 million people are in prison globally, including more than 714,000 women and girls. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. People in prison have a disproportionately high rate of poor mental health; research suggests that around one in seven prisoners has a serious mental health condition.
A high proportion of women in prison have poor mental health. There are many factors that can affect a person’s mental health. Many people have difficult life histories and prisons can be very tough places. This guide does not claim to solve these challenges. Instead, it gives ideas of practical steps that can help.
Prison staff have an important role to play in protecting and promoting health and well-being in prison and need adequate training as well as support from their managers. In planning and delivering prison healthcare services it is good practice to involve service users alongside health and social care professionals, relevant voluntary groups and prison staff.
This guide is written to help understand how life in prison can affect a person’s mental health, with a focus on women. It describes how to recognise the signs of poor mental health and how best to respond. The guide aims to break down the stigma and discrimination attached to poor mental health, especially for women in prison.
This guide has been written primarily for prison staff and others who work with women in prison or may be making decisions that affect them. It may also be helpful for women in prison, as well as for their families and friends. Many of the points in this guide are equally relevant to men in prison. However, there are particular approaches that should be taken to meet the specific needs of women.
At the national level, improvements in mental healthcare both within prison and the wider community need leadership from politicians and policy-makers. Aspects of prison life which have an impact on prisoners’ well-being fall within the responsibility of senior prison management and national prison administrations. In the Appendix a checklist based on international human rights standards is designed to help with the implementation of key aspects of prison reform and advocacy initiatives in line with international standards and norms.
This guide does not deal with the diagnosis and treatment of specific mental health conditions. This is the responsibility of specialised mental healthcare professionals. Neither does this guide replace mental health training for prison staff. All prison staff should receive basic and ongoing mental health training as part of their professional development, especially in relation to the prevention of suicide and self-harm.