Investing in better mental health for offenders

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Too many people come into Corrections in poor health; drug and alcohol use, undiagnosed illness, violence, abuse and a chaotic lifestyle all take their toll, leaving people in poor physical and mental health. The challenge we face is to improve people’s overall wellbeing so they can engage in activities aimed at helping them stop offending.

Worldwide it is estimated one in four people experience mental health issues. One in five New Zealanders experience mental illness in their lifetime. In prison these figures are significantly higher; more than nine out of 10 (91%) people had a lifetime diagnosis of a mental health or substance use disorder.

The high prevalence of mental illness among prisoners means that the Department of Corrections is managing more people with mental illness than any other institution in New Zealand.

People starting a community sentence are five times more likely than the general population to have used a mental health service in the year before or after their time spent in the justice sector. Drug and alcohol use is also much higher among offenders. Almost half of all prisoners had a substance use disorder over their lifetime, 13 times higher than the general population.

The mental health of offenders is an ongoing concern for us, and I know it has also been an area of concern for others too, including the Office of the Ombudsman whose insights and reported findings1 have been valuable in informing our plans to increase mental health support for offenders.

I signalled the importance of making gains in this area when I launched our Change Lives Shape Futures Strategic Plan back in August 2016. Providing a greater level of mental health, alcohol and other drug (AOD) support was one of eight action areas central to this plan. Here, we have set out in more detail what that support will look like.

In looking ahead, we must accept that at times our approach has not always met the mental health needs of all individuals in our care. We must learn from the past and move forward with a firm commitment to invest in this area and improve the way we work with people who have mental health disorders2.

The support we provide will be aimed at two particular groups; those with mild to moderate mental health issues, including drug and alcohol issues, and the small but significant minority of prisoners with severe (or acute) mental health issues and complex needs.

The investment we are making is significant. Some of it has already begun, such as our $14 million investment in mental health services and the $300 million redevelopment of Auckland Prison. Some are long-term aims that will take time and further investment, such as replacing out-dated units and moving to a new intervention and support model. Some initiatives are dependant on the co-operation of our partners.

Changes of this scale cannot be introduced overnight, nor can they be done in isolation. We will work closely with those committed to delivering better mental health services, including the Ministry of Health and District Health Boards, particularly forensic units such as the Mason Clinic, the Ombudsman, service providers and our justice sector colleagues.

Our duty of care is as strong as our call to action. By investing in better mental health for offenders we improve their chances of changing their life and shaping a new future for themselves, their family, and our communities.

Ray Smith
Chief Executive

1. COTA Finding Report - A Question of Restraint August 2016
2. Mental health disorders include substance use disorders