More than 40% of those on probation had mental health diagnosis, report shows

Providing for people with mental illness within justice system a priority, minister says

More than 40 per cent of people on probation had at least one mental health diagnosis, compared with 18.5 per cent of the general population, and 10 per cent were suicidal, the largest review of the cohort’s mental health has found.

The study, one of three reviewed in a report published on Thursday by the Probation Service, involved five probation teams and questionnaires about 500 people under their supervision at the time, in February 2019.

Of the 500, most (85 per cent) were identified as white Irish, 7.5 per cent were white Irish Traveller, 6.3 per cent other white, 0.6 per cent were black African and 0.2 per cent were from “other ethnic group”.

Overall, 41 per cent of the people “were formally identified as having a known mental diagnosis” says the report, with rates higher among women (52 per cent) than among men (38.5 per cent).


Anxiety disorders and mood disorders were most often reported , which was consistent for men and women.

The report, Moving Forward Together: Mental Health Among Persons Supervised by the Probation Service, by Dr Christina Power, senior clinical psychologist at the probation service, was welcomed by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.

“Providing for the complex needs of people with mental health difficulties who come into contact with the criminal justice system is a priority for me,” said the minister. “The publication of this report marks an important step in informing and developing best practice for working with people with mental health problems.”

Anxiety-related symptoms

Low mood and sadness, low self-esteem and anxiety-related symptoms were identified most often among people. Suicidal ideation and plans for suicide were identified by probation officers in 10 per cent of those under their supervision. Again rates were higher among women (16 per cent) than men (8 per cent).

The factor most often associated with mental ill-health was “chronic misuse of drugs or alcohol or both” (51 per cent), followed by difficult family relationships (49 per cent) and accommodation instability (47 per cent).

These were followed by past experience of trauma in childhood (20 per cent) and bereavement/unresolved grief (18 per cent).

Other factors included social isolation and withdrawal, and living alone with poor social supports.

Parenting concerns and access to children (11 per cent) and intimate partner violence were key issues identified more often for women than for men.

More than half those assessed were rated as having “slight impairment”, “mild symptoms”, or “moderate symptoms” under the Global Assessment of Functioning test, which examines the extent to which mental health difficulties impact on a person’s everyday functioning.

Unmet needs

“There are significant and unmet psychological and psychiatric needs among persons subject to probation supervision,” says the report. “These findings show that we need improved access and engagement routes to mental health services. There is a need for cross-agency working and a focused government approach to ensure this can happen.”

Director of the probation service, Mark Wilson, said the service had supported people with mental health problems for many years.

“While we knew it was an important area for the focus of our work, we did not have research to detail the frequency or severity of the problem.”

Among the report’s recommendations is that probation officers are trained in mental health issues.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times