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The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that in 2018 40% of Australian prisoners identified as having previously been diagnosed with a mental illness. Other statistics show that approximately 1 in 5 people with mental illnesses will come into contact with the criminal justice system at least once in their life, and a 2013 study concluded that 1 in 3 Australian adults in their 20s – 30s with psychiatric illness had been arrested during a 10-year period. 

So what’s linking mental illness and crime?

While there is no direct causal link between having a mental health condition and committing a crime, these statistics make it clear that those with mental illnesses are over-represented in the criminal justice system. This puts a significant burden on the entire system and undermines societies ability to limit criminality. 

The term ‘mental illness’ encompasses a broad range of conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia and psychotic disorders. These conditions have a large impact on an individual’s emotions and the way they interact within the community.  Ultimately, labelling a group of people suffering from serious health conditions as ‘violent’ or ‘dangerous’ only leaves them feeling more isolated from the community and ignores the fact that ‘mental illness’ is a sweeping term covering a range of conditions.

Generally, someone with a mental illness is more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system for three reasons: 

  • It is more common for people with particular mental illnesses to commit crimes and be incarcerated for them:

This is particularly true for people affected by psychotic disorders, where symptoms such as agitation, delusions or hallucinations can directly motivate criminal behaviour. Psychotic episodes accompanying particular mental illnesses can lead to a person engaging in offending behaviour. Studies have also revealed that symptoms of bipolar disorder can directly relate to crimes. Additionally, where a person is suffering from anxiety or extreme stress they are at greater risk of acting out of violence due to an increase in anger, agitation and/or impulsivity. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling with anxiety or stress, always remember it’s okay to ask for help. Discover available mental health and rehabilitation services by reading our post ‘5 support services for treating mental health’ here: 

  • Mental illness can be mistaken for criminality or perversity: 

Where mental illness is not properly diagnosed or accounted for, the conclusion that someone has engaged in criminality or perversity can fail to consider how mental illness may have impacted this act.

  • The prison environment contributes to mental illnesses, such as depression:

It’s no secret that mental health among prisoners is poorer than the general population. The prison environment, with its punitive nature, lower standards of healthcare and restrictive visitation hours can often contribute to disorders such as depression, stress and anxiety. In many cases, the prison environment can worsen these illnesses. Violence and brutality from other prisoners or staff can also trigger or exacerbate mental illness. 

The Centre for Policy Development has deemed a prison to be ‘dreadful place for someone who is mentally ill’, and current imprisonment has been identified as a cause of psychological distress for Australian prison entrants. Moreover, treatment for mental illnesses in prisons has often been criticised as being poorly staffed and ineffective. In some cases, individuals choose not to identify their mental illness, resulting in them receiving no treatment during their sentence.

This third reason also raises the important point of the likelihood of mentally ill people re-offending. In Australia, almost half (45.6%) of prisoners released in 2015 – 2016 returned to prison within two years. In Victoria, this statistic was 43.7%. The 2018 report on the Health of Australia’s prisoners showed that 3 in 4 prison entrants had been to prison before. These statistics demonstrate that a huge number of released prisoners have difficulty rehabilitating and transitioning back into society. During their sentence, prison conditions are likely to have impacted their mental health and emotional wellbeing. 

As the statistics for mental illness in the criminal justice system and re-offending show, there is an urgent need for these people to have access to rehabilitation and mental health support services. 

Indeed, the limited capacity of community-based mental health services has been identified as a contributing factor to the over-representation of those with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system. As of 2018, Victoria spends less than any other state in Australia per capita on community-based care and has fewer mental health beds than most states, except Tasmania. Victorians are calling for a major funding boost for community-based care. 

These confronting statistics highlight that while having a mental illness does not make you likely to offend, mental health plays a key role in criminal offences and the chances of re-offending. Ultimately, the connection between mental health and crime highlights the crucial role supportive mental health services play in combatting crime rates and reducing prisoner population numbers. The need for Victorians to access these services, and for these services to have adequate funding, has never been more important.