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Posted on Nov 25 2020 by

By Ellie Burch, Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, St Andrew’s Community Partnerships Team


The links between mental health and offending are significant. If people, especially those from chaotic backgrounds, experience the symptoms of a mental health problem, they may not know how to articulate what they’re going through. And yet symptoms, such as emotional distress and anxiety, can lead to all sorts of offending behaviours. Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, for example, can numb the pain of trauma temporarily, but it can also influence people to behave in ways that they wouldn’t normally. This might involve stealing to fund a habit or not being able to control a temper when drunk.

Many people who are on probation and living with a debilitating mental health problem haven’t ever been treated for their mental health. One man I work with, Chris, was 50 before anyone even asked him about his mental health and yet, as an 11 year-old boy, he experienced significant trauma when his baby brother died in his arms from Cot death. I feel incredibly lucky that I’m able to work with him today, given that his ongoing distress has led to many suicide attempts over the years.

Being on probation, put simply, is when it is agreed that you can live in the community, provided you adhere to certain conditions. Such conditions might involve community service or a curfew. 

Another condition of probation that applies to some people is called an MHTR (Mental Health Treatment Requirement) where it is a condition of your probation to undertake mental health support. But MHTRs are not given to nearly enough people. 

The alternative is voluntary mental health treatment. This is where a probation officer refers someone on probation who is in need of support to mental health services, like the one I work for.

The problem is, services like ours are quite rare and are stretched in terms of capacity. Our service covers the whole of Greater London with just nine staff – which shows that, while we can make a big difference with the clients referred to us, with the right resources, we could reach many more.

Society is often quick to judge those who have committed crimes, so stigma around people on probation might impact the popularity of a move to increase funding. But it’s hard to argue with the statistics… 

Research conducted by Dr James Fowler, a colleague at St Andrew’s, found that 74% of individuals on voluntary mental health support during probation committed no further offence in the following 12 months. 

I’m glad our service is here and helping people turn their lives around. I just wish the value in supporting individuals on probation was more widely understood and appropriately funded so more staff could be employed to help vulnerable offenders across the UK.