PRISONS have become the “dumping ground” for the mentally ill who make up almost half of Australia’s inmates, says the government’s key adviser on mental health.
And the prison management of the nation’s mental illness problem is costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year, the National Mental Health Commission chair Professor Allan Fels says.
The failure of the nation’s mental health services to cope with demand is also absorbing as much as 50 per cent of police time with police estimated to detain a mentally ill person every two hours.
This is far more than it would cost to treat these people in properly serviced mental health programs in the community.
The commission says 38 per cent of the 29,000 people entering prison have a mental illness and one in three prisoners with a mental illness has been in prison five times or more.
“Prisons have become the dumping ground for mentally ill people after the closure of asylums and the failure to provide adequate accommodation in the community,” Professor Fels says.
“The criminalisation of people with a mental illness has never been right; it calls into question Australia’s international human rights obligations,” the report says.
The lack of mental health services and housing meant some mentally ill people see prison as home and they deliberately commit crimes to get behind bars so they could have a roof over the heads and get fed, Professor Fels says.
“It is essential that diversion programs are strengthened to provide pathways away from the criminal justice system towards health and social supports for people to lead contributing lives in the community,” the report says.
The report says the most severely mentally ill are dying at a rate that is two and a half times greater than the general population.
The gap in life expectancy for people with psychosis compared to the general population has increased to almost 23 years.
The new Abbott Government wants the commission to provide a report on the way forward for mental health.
Professor Fels says innovative solutions that treats physical health, provides housing, a job and social connectedness as well as mental health care must be adopted.
The aim of the system must be to support a person with a mental illness so they can lead a contributing life, he says.
The commission calls for a reduction in the use of restraint and seclusion to deal with the mentally ill.
It says no-one should be discharged from hospitals, custodial care, mental health or drug and alcohol related treatment services into homelessness.
It wants diversion services to create pathways for people with mental health problems away from prison and into support and treatment.
This article first appeared on ‘Courier Mail’ on 26 November 2013.