Healthcare | Social Policy

Suicide and self harm in prisons – A New Zealand Corrections Health Services response

22 Aug 2018, by Amy Sarcevic


Research into the mental health and suicide rates of prisoners in New Zealand presents some challenging figures, suggesting that further interventions are needed to better support those affected.

A report on the prevalence of mental health disorders amongst newly-received prisoners in 2016 found that 62 percent meet the diagnosis for either a mental health disorder or substance use disorder with a lifetime diagnosis of 91 percent. Prevalence of co-morbidity was 20 percent.

The study showed that in the previous 12 months, 14 percent of participants had experienced suicidal ideas, 7 percent had a suicide plan and 6 percent had attempted suicide.

Additionally, less than half (46 percent) of the participants with co-morbidity had received any form of treatment in the previous 12 months.

To address these findings, the Department of Corrections New Zealand has been engaged in a number of initiatives to improve the capacity and capability of its staff and to explore how its prisons can provide a more therapeutic environment to support those vulnerable to suicide and self-harm .

“The Department of Corrections currently does not employ specialized mental health staff to meet the needs of these individuals”, says Fiona-Ann Malcolm, the department’s Principal Psychologist and Manager of Specialised Intervention & Support, ahead of the Correctional Services Healthcare Summit.

“The focus is on keeping people safe; and in order to do this people are often segregated within ‘at risk units,’ rather than providing a care environment with the requisite skills to improve their mental health status.”

“In order to achieve better therapeutic outcomes, we will be softening the physical environment with a focus on promoting well-being. We will also be employing a mental health team who will provide crisis care, as well as having a prevention focus”.

In addition, the initiative will bolster the mental health training offered to prison officers, in a bid to improve the way they make decisions. “The idea is for decisions to be more focused on the needs of people vulnerable to self-harm and suicide, rather than being rule bound”, adds Ms. Malcolm.

Vicky Noble is the department’s Principal Health Adviser and highlights some of the challenges in coordinating the initiative, particularly when considering the broader government health agencies that deliver mental health services . “The New Zealand context provides a number of unique factors. The funding for Corrections Health Services sits separately to that of mainstream health service provision. When developing a new service we need to work closely with our health partners to ensure we maximise continuity of care and don’t duplicate precious resources”, says Ms. Noble.

Presenting at the Correctional Services Healthcare Summit 13-14 September, Melbourne, Vicky Noble and Fiona-Ann Malcolm will share insights into the background research which has uncovered the prevalence of mental health disorders within prisons, how the NZ Department of Corrections is addressing this issue and some of the difficulties of developing a therapeutic mental health approach within a prison environment.

Learn more and register.

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