Mental health support failings fuel rise in self-harm and suicide in custody, say experts

Shortfalls in mental health provision for offenders serving community orders is fuelling the rise in suicide and self-harm in custody, experts have warned following a rise in self-inflicted prison deaths.

The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP), which advises the government on how to reduce deaths in custody, raised concerns about the “pitiful” proportion of offenders receiving mental health or substance treatment as part of community orders.

The IAP highlighted data showing that of the 75,750 community orders made in 2018, fewer than 1 per cent – just 454 – included a mental health treatment requirement, which enables them to engage with appropriate treatment and support as part of the order.

Meanwhile, 5.9 per cent included a drug treatment requirement and 4.1 per cent included an alcohol treatment, representing a drop on eight years ago, when the figures stood at 8.1 per cent and 4.4 per cent respectively.

It comes as new government figures revealed 86 people took their lives in prison in the year to June 2019, compared with 81 the previous year, while self-harm incidents reached a record high of 57,968 in the 12 months to March 2019, up 24 per cent from the previous year.

Juliet Lyon, chair of the IAP, told The Independent the government was failing to deliver on the "very successful early intervention" of including mental health, alcohol and drug requirements on community orders, which she said prevented people from "getting more ill, or deeper into the criminal justice system".

“People's mental health is less likely to improve, and if their mental health or substance misuse is a factor in their reoffending, and that’s not dealt with or treated, then the likelihood is they would continue to offend," she said.

Ms Lyons added that if people got the help and treatment they needed earlier, it would help reduce the number of self-inflicted deaths and self-harm incidents in prison.

It comes after the prisons watchdog made the unprecedented move of calling for an independent investigation into suicide and self-harm across jails in England and Wales at the launch of his annual report earlier this month.

Chief inspector Peter Clarke said it was “obviously unacceptable” that, despite warnings, “repeated failings” had led to more deaths in custody, and suggested the only way to improve the situation was to subject the prison service to “significant independent scrutiny”.

His report stated that levels of self-harm were “disturbingly high” and that in some jails there was no effective strategy to reducing it, describing a visit to one prison where numerous cell bells – designed for inmates to indicate they need emergency help – were being ignored by officers.

The Ministry of Justice has been approached for comment.