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Mentally Ill 'Overrepresented' In Canadian Jails: Report

Not clear how the relationship works, researchers say

Linda Nguyen , Canwest News Service
Published: Tuesday, April 29, 2008

OTTAWA - More than one in four Canadians hospitalized for mental illness have had brushes with the law, but researchers aren't sure whether mental illness breeds delinquency or whether jailing people makes them more prone to psychiatric problems, according to a report released Tuesday.

"It is difficult to identify when a mental illness may have been a precursor to incarceration and when, or if, it developed or worsened with incarceration," said Carole Brule, a lead researcher for the report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

The report, titled Improving the Health of Canadians 2008: Mental Health, Delinquency and Criminal Activity, looked at data gathered on more than 30,000 patients admitted to Ontario hospitals for mental illness between 2006 to 2007.

In all, 28 per cent reported having a criminal past, but it was not necessarily the reason why they were committed to hospital, researchers say.

By contrast, one in 10 patients in the study group were found to be in the mental health facility directly as a result of their criminal activity, such as being placed there through a police- or court-imposed intervention program.

Schizophrenia was the most commonly diagnosed mental illness (54 per cent), followed by substance-related disorders (38 per cent), the report said.

This led to "youth and adults with diagnosed mental illnesses (being) overrepresented in Canada's correctional facilities," the researchers said.

Even so, the data do not fully describe the link between mental health problems and jail time, Brule noted.

"What we need to do is look at more specific populations," she said. "We want to look at aspects of mental health, coping aspects, self-esteem, economics and individual factors and then focus on the criminal factors."

One reason the link has been so hard to explain is that people with mental illness who commit crimes are also more likely to be given extra support from the justice system. This may prevent repeat offences, the research showed.

"Court diversion programs are in place to divert low-risk and non-violent offenders away from the criminal system and divert them to more community-based services," Brule said. "They produce lower rates of recidivism. It seems to be working."

The report also explored the factors that could contribute to or lessen a person's involvement in criminal activity.

Researchers found, for example, that youth aged 12 or 13 who identified themselves as hyperactive and depressed were more likely to engage in aggressive behaviour and delinquent activities like property damage.

By contrast, those aged 12 to 15 who showed high levels of self-esteem, good stress management and self-motivation said that they didn't engage in any aggressive behaviour, the report said.

"With this study we wanted to look upstream and downstream and at an overarching approach to health at this point," Brule said. "We want to be able to assist people with mental health issues and identify what means of support are there upon their release (from custody)."

The Canadian Institute for Health Information is a national non-profit organization that collects and analyzes information on health and health care in Canada.

© Canwest News Service 2008

Reproduced from http://www.canada.com/topics/news/national/story.html?id=d354e54f-2781-4794-af8f-c892ab17ba4e&k=94695

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