Program enhancing mental healthcare for Aboriginal prisoners receives $1.18m grant

Researchers from UNSW will test the effectiveness of mental health interventions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Larissa Baiocchi | UNSW Newsroom

UNSW Sydney Professor Kimberlie Dean and her team have received a $1.18 million grant to improve mental healthcare in prison and support the prison-to-community transition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women.

The project is one of 14 successful projects funded with grants totaling $32 million through the federal government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). The Australian government is investing $6.8 billion in medical research over the next four years, including $2.6 billion in the MRFF.

“I'm excited to have the financial support necessary to progress this important research and also to have the opportunity to build much-needed research capacity in the area,” Prof. Dean said. 

Prof. Dean, who is the Head of Discipline for Psychiatry and Mental Health, and Chair of Forensic Mental Health at UNSW Medicine & Health, said the project will provide an enhanced service to meet the specific cultural and community-connection needs of Aboriginal men and women being released from prison.

The intervention also has the potential to contribute to reducing the over-incarceration of Aboriginal people by reducing risk of a return to custody. In 2021, the Productivity Commission reported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults were imprisoned at 11 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians in 2019–20. 

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are incarcerated at an alarming rate and those in prison often suffer with significant mental health needs, which can be associated with an elevated risk of poor outcomes both before and after returning to the community, including risk of re-incarceration,” Prof. Dean said.

“The proposed research project aims to test the effectiveness of a new culturally-enhanced and release-focused mental health intervention designed to improve mental healthcare in prison and to support the critical prison-to-community transition for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander men and women.”

The project, Prof. Dean said, will be embedded within the Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network, the public health service tasked with meeting the health needs of those in contact with the criminal justice system in NSW.

It builds on a recently implemented local service development, the Community Transitions Team, designed to support mental healthcare continuity for those with mental illness who are transitioning from prison to the community. The project will be led by clinicians and Aboriginal Health colleagues, and additionally aims to build clinical research capacity in this vitally important field.

Scientia Professor Vlado Perkovic, Dean of UNSW Medicine & Health, congratulated Prof. Dean and the team on securing the funding.

“This funding announcement is a major step forward in improving mental health outcomes for Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system using holistic approaches that are culturally relevant,” Prof. Perkovic said. “Prof. Dean is a leader in this field and I look forward to seeing the positive outcomes of this much-needed intervention program.”