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Tuesday, July 27, 1999 Published at 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK


Suicide and prison closely linked

Many prisoners have attempted suicide

Two fifths of women prisoners and a fifth of male prisoners in England and Wales have attempted suicide, according to official statistics.

Most had attempted to take their lives before they were admitted to prison, but the number of suicides in jail is also rising.

Many came from a background of violence and abuse.

Prison campaigners say the figures, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), show the strong link between social deprivation, mental ill health and imprisonment and the need for a multi-agency approach to cutting crime and better prison screening of mental illness.

Of those who had attempted suicide in the past year there were eight main risk factors.

The most common were being white and being young.

Others included having a poor education and very little support from family and friends.

Suicide attempts were also strongly linked to mental disorders such as schizophrenia, heavy alcohol abuse and neurosis.

The Mental Health Foundation said the figures showed the need for more work to address mental health in prisons.

A recent NHS Executive and Prison Service report called for the setting up of mental health outreach teams on prison wings and better screening of prisoners.

Alcohol abuse

Another report by the ONS also shows a clear link between mental disorder and drug and alcohol abuse.

[ image: Drinking is heavily linked to drug abuse and mental health problems]
Drinking is heavily linked to drug abuse and mental health problems
Up to 63% of male prisoners and 39% of women prisoners surveyed in the study drank to dangerous levels in the year before being jailed.

In many cases, drug and alcohol abuse were closely associated.

Prisoners hooked on cannabis and stimulants like cocaine and crack were more likely to drink and smoke heavily than those who took opiates like heroin.

Many inmates said they started taking drugs at an early age - most before they were 16.

Cannabis was likely to be their first drug, followed by amphetamines, heroin, cocaine and then crack for hardened drug users.

Most did not receive any help to come off drugs when they were in prison. Only 20% of male remand prisoners and 32% of women sentenced prisoners were given support to beat their addiction.

Drug treatment

The figures relate to 1997, before the introduction of government moves to support drug treatment programmes.

But they show there is a long way to go to improve the prison drug problem.

Drug organisations blame the shortage of treatment programmes available.

And, despite supporting the government's emphasis on treatment, they are concerned that the funding being made available will not be enough to plug the gaps.

The report also shows more than three quarters of prisoners smoke heavily - a much higher rate than among the general population.

The numbers were close to levels reported by the homeless and people with mental illness.

The Health Education Authority says people from deprived social backgrounds are more likely to be addicted to smoking than more well-off people and have greater trouble quitting.

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