High rates of mental health issues and risky health behaviours among Australia’s prisoners

Australia’s prisoners have high levels of mental health issues and risky health behaviours, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The health of Australia’s prisoners 2010 is the second AIHW report to examine prisoner health in Australia, using National Prisoner Health Indicators. It uses data from the National Prisoner Health Census, which was conducted over a two week period on all prison entrants, except those in New South Wales and Victoria (these jurisdictions will participate in the future).

The report shows that in 2010, over 30% of prison entrants said they had been told at some point in their lives before coming to prison that they had a mental health illness.

‘On entry to prison, almost one-fifth of new prisoners were referred to the prison’s mental health services for observation and further assessment,’ said AIHW spokesperson Tim Beard.

‘During the 2 week prisoner census period, almost 1 in 10 prisoners visited the clinic for a psychological or mental health issue, and 1 in 5 were taking medications for mental health issues.’

Prison entrants in Australia also reported a history of engaging in various risky health behaviours at greater rates than the general community, such as smoking tobacco, using illicit drugs, and drinking alcohol at high levels.

‘Four in five prison entrants were smokers, and three in four said they smoked daily, while more than half reported drinking alcohol at risky levels,’ Mr Beard said.

‘Two-thirds of prison entrants said they’d used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months, and over half had injected drugs at some time in their life.’

The physical health of prisoners was also highlighted as a major concern—over a quarter of prison entrants had a chronic health condition such as asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease or diabetes, and a further 35% had tested positive to hepatitis C.  

Indigenous prison entrants reported higher rates of risky health behaviours (such as smoking and alcohol consumption) than their non-Indigenous counterparts. However they reported lower levels of mental health related issues and some chronic conditions.

There were almost 29,000 prisoners in custody in Australia at 30 June 2010.

More information on prisoner health can be found at: www.aihw.gov.au/reports-statistics/population-groups/prisoners/

The AIHW is a major national agency set up by the Australian Government to provide reliable, regular and relevant information and statistics on Australia's health and welfare.


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