By Jenny Talbot OBE, Director of Care not Custody programme, Prison Reform Trust

It was at a meeting of the Mental Health Challenge that the ‘appetite’ to bring to the fore the particular needs of women was crystallised. To be precise, the particular needs of women in contact with, or on the edges of, the criminal justice system.

Much is known about the high proportion of people with mental health problems caught up in the criminal justice system. Being a much smaller group, women’s needs are frequently overlooked – and yet research shows their needs are the greatest, both in their own right and because they are most often the primary carer of children. Between half and two-thirds of women caught up in the criminal justice system have depression, and almost half say they have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Around two-fifths have a low IQ, which means they may need support with daily living, such as dealing with debt and money management, sorting out housing tenancies, and family support. Almost a third have spent time in local authority care as a child, half report having experienced emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse as a child, and similar numbers report a history of domestic violence.

In short – women in contact with, or on the edges of, the criminal justice system are a highly vulnerable group and, for most, their already difficult lives are further compounded by poor mental health.

Last year, supported by The Big Lottery, the Prison Reform Trust renewed its efforts in calling for a reduction in the number of women in prison. It is well established that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside the justice system. For example, decent and secure housing, protection from domestic violence and support to move on from coercive relationships, money management skills, support for families, skills for employment and timely access to effective and relevant mental health services.

The current context of reduced budgets is, of course, challenging. There are, however, opportunities for local authorities to take a lead in rethinking service provision to ensure women receive the necessary support, and for better coordination of existing arrangements. For example, women’s imprisonment results in an estimated 17,000 children being separated from their mothers. The immediate and generational impact of such separation is traumatic for those directly concerned and costly for local areas. A mother’s imprisonment can treble the risk of antisocial behaviour in children, and double their risk of poor mental health.

Research increasingly shows that money invested in early intervention for girls and young women at risk of poor mental health and in women’s services can help prevent escalation of need and costly crisis intervention, improve outcomes and result in savings for local areas. By working with women, and inviting them to contribute their unique experiences and insights, multi-agency services can integrate support and ensure local services are designed in a way that best meet the needs of women and children.

Local council Mental Health Champions are well placed to help ensure that the particular needs of women with mental health problems in their local areas, and their families, are brought to the fore. Lessons learned from supporting women can help to inform service delivery for other vulnerable groups. A new report, produced jointly with Centre for Mental Health, the Education Policy Institute, and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, Leading change: the role of local authorities in supporting women with multiple needs provides further information and suggestions for how this might be achieved.

The report can be downloaded for free here or contact [email protected] for a hard copy.