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The Government has been urged to improve the way it collects data on prisoners with mental health issues to improve the care and support it gives to affected inmates.

It follows concerns raised by the National Audit Office (NAO) that the Government does not have detailed data on prisoners with mental health issues.

Lack of data on mental illness

Gaps include information on the numbers of people in prison with a mental illness and precise details on how much is spent on mental health in prisons.

The NAO - which scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government - suggested that without such data, it would be difficult for the Government to assess whether it was achieving value for money in its efforts to improve the mental health and wellbeing of prisoners.

Tackling mental health in prisons

Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS), NHS England and Public Health England have set objectives for providing mental health services, including better efforts to identify prisoners with specialist mental health requirements. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice and its partners have undertaken work to identify interventions to reduce suicide and self-harm in prisons and also plans to provide more training to prison officers to help them better understand mental health conditions. This training will help those in all areas, from the obvious offender health teams, to substance misuse workers and those in youth offending jobs.

Prisoners more likely to have mental illness

While one in four adults are diagnosed with a mental illness during their life, research suggests prisoners are more likely to experience mental health problems.

Rates of self-inflicted deaths and self-harm in prison rose by 73% between 2012 and 2016 and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman found in 2016 that 70% of prisoners who committed suicide between 2012 and 2014 had mental health needs.

Mentally ill prisoners should wait no more than 14 days to be admitted to a secure hospital, but only 34% of prisoners were transferred within 14 days in 2016-17 while 7% (76) waited for more than 140 days.

Address suicide and self-harm

The NAO said the Government needs to address the rising rates of suicide and self-harm in prisons as a matter of urgency.

Head of the NAO Amyas Morse said: “Improving the mental health of those in prison will require a step change in effort and resources. The quality of clinical care is generally good for those who can access it, but the rise in prisoner suicide and self-harm suggests a decline in mental health and well-being overall. The data on how many people in prison have mental health problems and how much government is spending to address this is poor. Consequently government do not know the base they are starting from, what they need to improve, or how realistic it is for them to meet their objectives.”

Lack of data is a “gaping hole”

The Centre for Mental Health (CMH) says the lack of accurate information represents a “gaping hole in prison and health policy.” Working with the Howard League, the organisations produced the “Preventing Prison Suicide” report as a joint programme aimed at saving lives in prison.

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