A third of prisoners are on a waiting list for psychological support and more than a fifth of inmates are receiving anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication, official figures show.
Penal reformers said the figures reveal the “breadth and depth of mental illness” in prisons and believe the problem has been “undoubtedly exacerbated” by Covid restrictions on accessing psychological help.
While they welcome investment by the Irish Prison Service (IPS) in its Psychology Service, they said the growth was “too slow” and had “stalled”.
In replies to parliamentary questions tabled by Sinn Fién TD Réada Cronin, Minister of State at the Department of Justice Hildegarde Naughton said that, as of 12 July 2021, there were 1,171 people on a waiting list for psychological assessment or intervention. This represents a third of the 3,852 inmates on that day.
In addition, she said there were 639 people being assessed or receiving therapy – a sixth of the population.
Ms Naughton said the HSE’s National Forensic Mental Health Service operated an in-reach team and dealt with 250 prisoners with severe mental illnesses.
The minister also said 562 prisoners (15% of the population) were prescribed medication for the treatment of depression.
Separately, there are 234 prisoners (6%) prescribed medication for both depression and anxiety, with a further 13 people receiving medication for anxiety.
In total, the 809 people represent 21% of the prison population.
Ms Naughton said there were 34 psychologists currently employed., compared to 15 in 2015.
In its 2020 annual report, published last Friday, the IPS said the psychology service had been “impacted” by Covid-19 restrictions, but that help was provided online and via telephone.
It said the target ratio was 1 psychologist to every 150 inmates, but was currently 1 to 220.
Keith Adams of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice said the figures reveal the “breadth and depth of mental illness” within the prison system and paint “a genuinely unsettling picture”.
He said: “A third of all prisoners are on a waiting list to be assessed by the Prison Service Psychology Team, while one in six prisoners are being assessed or receiving treatment. Our prisons also accommodate a significant cohort of seriously unwell people requiring forensic mental health support.”
He added: “The provision of psychiatric and psychological care in Irish prisons is in a perpetual state of fire-fighting. The number of psychologists employed has stalled - only two full-time posts have been added since 2019 and there are over 1,000 prisoners on waiting lists.”
IPRT Legal and Public Affairs Manager, Molly Joyce, said: “Mental health was one of the most pressing issues in Irish prisons before the pandemic, and the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated this need.
"The ratio of psychologists to prisoners in 2020 (1:220) remained far off the recommended target of 1:150, despite the additional need brought about by the pandemic. We welcome the continued focus of the IPS on improving this ratio, but progress has been too slow.”
The Government's taskforce on mental health and addiction in prisons is due issue an interim report by the end of September and an implementation plan by the end of the year.