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Indigenous inmates need better mental health services

Treatment for mental illness can break the ‘revolving door’ cycle among inmates, researchers say. Flickr/:Dan.

Aboriginal people in custody are in urgent need of improved mental health services, according to the authors of a study that found many Indigenous adults in Queensland jails have at least one mental disorder.

The director of Queensland Forensic Mental Health Services, Dr Edward Heffernan, and coauthors based their findings on interviews with 347 Indigenous men and 72 Indigenous women who were incarcerated in Queensland in 2008.

The findings are published today in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 14 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians and make up 26% of people in custody, despite being less than 3% of the Australian population.

The researchers, who included a member of the School of Population Health at the University of Queensland, found that 73% of Indigenous men and 86% of Indigenous women who gave interviews had a mental disorder. By comparison, 20% of Australians have a mental illness.

Specifically, 20% of the men and 51% of the women who took part had anxiety disorders, 11% of men and 29% of women had depressive disorders, 8% of men and 23% of women had psychotic disorders, and 66% of men and 69% of women had a substance use disorder.

Of particular concern was the prevalence of diagnosed psychotic disorder, particularly among women, the researchers found.

“Psychotic disorder is associated with significant morbidity and increased risk of reincarceration,” they wrote.

According to their report, the findings highlight an urgent need to develop and resource culturally capable mental health services for Indigenous Australians in custody: “Access to appropriate treatment may help prevent the ‘revolving door’ of incarceration.”

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