Australian Medical Association
18 Sep 2006
Imprisonment should be the last resort for people with mental health problems, AMA (Australian Medical Association) President, Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, said today.
In an editorial in the latest Medical Journal of Australia, senior psychiatry experts have called on State, Territory and Federal Governments to spend some of the $4 billion recently marked for mental health services reform on improving prison mental health services.
Co-author Dr Paul White, of the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, said mentally ill people who have committed minor offences should be diverted out of the prison system and into appropriate rehabilitation services.
Dr Haikerwal backed the call.
Dr White observed that Australian remand centres often contain more seriously mentally ill people than general hospital mental health inpatient units, Dr Haikerwal said.
It seems prisons have become the mental health institutions of the 21st century. Governments must act immediately to reverse this situation.
The AMA calls on all jurisdictions to make imprisonment the action of last resort for those with mental health or substance abuse problems.
Governments should also set specific annual targets for reducing the number of people incarcerated with these problems.
Currently, only NSW has collected comprehensive data on the number of prisoners with mental health or substance abuse problems.
All Australian jurisdictions should be collecting and publishing this kind of information, so specific reduction targets can be set, Dr Haikerwal said.
Mental health teams should screen all prisoners on remand and following sentencing, he said.
Those with mental health problems should be diverted to best practice treatment and support programs as an alternative to incarceration, Dr Haikerwal said.
Those with substance abuse problems should be offered effective treatment, including residential treatment, as an alternative to incarceration.
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