"Jail can be scary": Mental health in prison

11th Mar 2019
Prevention resources and tools
Men's mental health

This content mentions self-harm, trauma, depression and anxiety. Please read with care. There are details of where to find help at the bottom of this page.

We are delighted to be launching ‘How to look after your mental health in prison, a guide for male prisoners’, a new addition to our ‘How to Look after your Mental Health’ series.

Prison and the crisis of unmet mental health needs

Currently in the prison system there is a crisis of unmet mental health needs. The Institute of Psychiatry estimated that:

  • Over half of prisoners have poor mental health including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety
  • Around 15% of prisoners have specialist mental health needs
  • Around 2% are thought to have acute and serious mental health problems1
  • Self-harm incidents also rose by 73% between 2012 and 2016

At the Mental Health Foundation, we specialise in public mental health policy and research, and co-produce (work with you) initiatives across the life course (from your early to later years) to support people to understand, protect and sustain their mental health.


of prisoners have specialist mental health needs

More than 50%

of prisoners have poor mental health including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety


are thought to have acute and serious mental health problems

The importance of self-management and peer-support

Over the past decade, the Foundation has been a key innovator in the UK on developing and implementing programmes focused on self-management (looking after your own mental health) in peer support (helping each other) settings. These programmes have used the best available evidence base in their development and have tested and adapted similar approaches in different settings and populations including school children, young mums, prisoners and people in later life.

Working with prisoners to create their guide

The booklet was co-produced with prisoners from Parc Prison, Wales. They took part in a self-management programme, run by the Foundation in partnership with G4S, which delivered peer support courses to vulnerable prisoners at HMP &YOI Parc Bridgend, between October 2013 and December 2016.

The expressive, charcoal drawings which illustrate the booklet were made at a creative evaluation workshop for the self-management work. They provide a glimpse into the experience of being in prison and the positive impact the self-management courses had on their mental health.

The environment of prison can have an impact on mental health

Being in prison, is by intention, a very difficult experience. The environment, the rules and regulations and lack of personal control can all have an impact on prisoner’s mental health. Older prisoners, those with a physical or learning disabilities, and other vulnerable groups are especially at risk of experiencing poor mental health whilst in prison.

Ten tips to good mental health in prison

The booklet encourages prisoners through ten tips to good mental health in prison to prioritise looking after their mental health. In order to be able to cope better with life in the prison environment, improve wellbeing and build better support networks with family, other inmates and professionals who can help. The booklet is also available in a summary version for people with poor literacy skills.

Our future aims for supporting prisoners mental health

We are hoping to co-produce additional booklets in the future to be part of addressing all prisoners’ mental health needs, including women prisoners, people with learning difficulties and people in later life, to better manage their mental health in prison.

If you are feeling like ending your life or feel unable to keep yourself safe, please call 999 or go to A&E and ask for the contact of the nearest crisis resolution team. These are teams of mental health care professionals who work with people in severe distress. If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.

Related content

How to look after your mental health in prison

This guide provides you with tips on how to look after your mental health in prison.

Parc Prison Peer-led Self-Management Project Impact Report

This self-management programme ran between 2013 to 2016 with courses mental health for inmates of the UK prison environment for the first time, at Parc Men's Prison, Bridgend in South Wales.

A-Z Topic: Peer support

Peer support is when people use their own experiences to help each other.

A-Z Topic: Self-management of mental ill-health

Self-management is about learning tools and techniques to manage your own mental health.

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