Sending people with mental health issues to prison is unacceptable and tackling this must be a key priority for Government, junior minister Helen McEntee says.
Even if the capacity of the Central Mental Hospital was greatly expanded it would not be able to cope with the numbers of people who need to access services, the minister of state for mental health has said.
It comes after Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald brought a memo to cabinet this week on the first report of the interdepartmental group which is examining the issue of mental health in the criminal justice system.
A second report is also being worked on by the group.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Ms McEntee said addressing the large numbers of people suffering with mental health problems who are sent to prison is “one of the biggest problems” that needs to be tackled.
“The biggest problem here is that if you built that [the Central Mental Hospital] five times the size, you would probably be able to still fill it because you have a lot of people who would be in prison who really shouldn’t be in prison, they actually have psychiatric problems.
But because there isn’t enough space for them that’s where they end up and it’s not maybe realised that that’s where the actual problem is.”
While the Irish Prison Service has a number of “in-reach” mental health services which it runs in collaboration with the HSE in a number of jails, there is still a continuous waiting list of inmates who are awaiting a bed in the Central Mental Hospital (CMH).
Responding to recent parliamentary question, Ms Fitzgerald said: “The Irish Prison Service has access to a limited number of places in the CMH for prisoners who require residential mental health treatment. There is currently an average of 15 persons each week awaiting transfer to the CMH.”
Ms McEntee said that it is now time for the Government to address what she described as “the biggest problems we are facing” and she has started to look at options of removing these vulnerable people from jail: “It costs a lot more to keep somebody in prison, let alone the fact that it’s not actually right that someone is in prison when they actually have a mental health problem.
“Sometimes it’s hard to identify that as well. It might not be identified, or there might not be space, so that’s why it’s so important that our new Central Mental Hospital progresses as quickly as possible so that we have more space. I think it’s one of the biggest problems we are facing.”
Although planning permission was given to build a new Central Mental Hospital last year, it is expected that this new facility will not be completed until 2018.
A 2014 report by the Mental Health Commission said the current Central Mental Hospital building in Dundrum is “outdated and unsuitable as a mental health facility for the 21st century”.
The Meath East TD said: “While the team in Dundrum do an absolutely amazing job, it’s a building that was built in the 1850s, it needs to be upgraded. So progressing that is a priority for me.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved