Breaking the cycle of returning to prison for mental health help

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, ITV News is highlighting issues or conditions often under-represented in terms of awareness as well as looking at positive and therapeutic initiatives helping people with their mental health recovery.

  • By Davina Fenton and Natalia Jorquera

Addressing the mental health needs of female prisoners is a challenging issue and some women can find support services lacking both inside and outside the prison gates.

Women in custody are five times more likely to have a mental health concern than women in the general population, research suggests.

Donna has dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as split personality disorder.

She first experienced mental health problems at the age of 22 when she had what she describes as a breakdown.

She ended up under section in psychiatric hospitals "not really getting much help, just being medicated," she told ITV News.

Subsequently, Donna said for years she was left in the system "just drifting around" with ever-deepening depression and anxiety.

It was when she was in her 30s that Donna first ended up in prison when "things got out of control" and she ended up causing a fire.

She admitted that first experience of the prison system was "frightening" but that on the positive side she was offered counselling.

"I was offered psychotherapy for the first time in my life and that's just what I needed," Donna said.

But when she was released the counselling and support ended.

"Unfortunately, when you come out of prison you're left in the same scenario again, left with no proper support, no help, so my mental health started to deteriorate.

"I've been in and out of prison for my mental health problems."

On her last release, Donna was referred to Wish, a charity that offers help to women within the criminal justice system who have mental health needs.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Donna said.

"They offered me something that wasn't really given to me before, just understanding, that kind of helps.

"I was doing some voluntary work with them, doing things in the office and it really got me out of myself, it got my confidence back which was lacking."

Charity Wish works with women with mental health needs in and out of prison Credit: ITV News

Donna explained that she had previously been given Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) therapy in prison that she found helpful.

"I even asked the judge to sentence me an extra month in order for me to be able to get this therapy," she said.

She added said she would like to be given more therapy to help regulate her emotions so that she can be "a bit more stable" and do some more voluntary work or gain a reasonable living.

She credits Wish and her probation team with keeping her on more of an even keel, adding: "It's incredible really."

"Otherwise I'd probably be in and out of prison and getting my therapy that way."

  • Anne-Marie's story

Like Donna, Anne-Marie also has a personality disorder. It first began to manifest when she was 16, following a series of traumatic personal events.

"I wasn't getting much help, the doctors couldn't diagnose me properly with an illness," she told ITV News.

Soon after, she was sentenced to time in prison for making hoax calls to the police.

When she was released, Anne-Marie soon ran into problems.

"I kept going back into prison and unfortunately it's an addiction for me," she said. "It's a structure because I know my routine."

"Whenever I was let out of there I wasn't getting much help, so the easy option was to get arrested, go back in."

Anne-Marie's personality disorder first began to manifest at 16. Credit: ITV News

In total, Anne-Marie been in prison nine times - but it's been two years since she was last released.

She began working with Wish when she was in prison and has continued to do so.

Anne-Marie said some of the things that have had the most impact include access to counselling.

"I wouldn't talk to many people, I was too shy, so that's brought me out of my shell.

"I'm in a totally better place now."

Anne-Marie loves animals and regularly visits London Zoo as she has a yearly pass.

"I'm at one with the animals there because my bad thoughts are gone completely and I'm just concentrating on the animals," she said.

Poetry and drama classes have also helped occupy her time and she also enjoys karaoke, singing "anything by Madonna".

In the future, Anne-Marie says she would also like to try and become a counsellor.

"I know it's a tough job but I can listen to people and if someone's been through the same thing as me, maybe I can give a little feedback."

Anne-Marie would like to one day become a counsellor. Credit: ITV News

When asked about the prospect of her returning to prison, Anne-Marie said:"Hopefully it is the last time ... the next time I go back to prison, I don't want to be a prisoner, I want to be a visitor."

In terms of her current mental health, Anne-Marie is "still up and down."

"I'm not completely out of the woods yet, there's still a lot to do but I'm getting there."

She was recently also diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and is currently waiting to be referred to a learning disability team.

"I've got a lot of work to do on myself, things can be offered to me, sometimes I refuse them but when I look back on it ... why not get the help while I can and take it from there?" Anne-Marie said.

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