Open Access Research article

Mental health consultations in a prison population: a descriptive study

Ellen Kjelsberg1*, Paal Hartvig1, Harald Bowitz2, Irene Kuisma3, Peder Norbech4, Aase-Bente Rustad1, Marthe Seem5 and Tom-Gunnar Vik6

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Research and Education in Forensic Psychiatry, Ulleval University Hospital, Building 7 Gaustad, NO-0320 Oslo, Norway

2 Psyk. poliklinikk Baerum, Postboks 83, NO-1309 Rud, Norway

3 Oslo Prison, P.O.Box 9292, NO-0134 Oslo, Norway

4 Jessheimklinikken, Trondheimsveien 75, NO-2050 Jessheim, Norway

5 Ringerike Prison, P.O.Box 40, NO-3533 Tyristrand, Norway

6 Telemark Hospital, Ulefossveien 55, NO-3710 Skien, Norway

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BMC Psychiatry 2006, 6:27  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-6-27

Published: 7 June 2006



The psychiatric morbidity among prison inmates is substantially higher than in the general population. We do, however, have insufficient knowledge about the extent of psychiatric treatment provided in our prisons. The aim of the present study was to give a comprehensive description of all non-pharmacological interventions provided by the psychiatric health services to a stratified sample of prison inmates.


Six medium/large prisons (n = 928) representing 1/3 of the Norwegian prison population and with female and preventive detention inmates over-sampled, were investigated cross-sectionally. All non-pharmacological psychiatric interventions, excluding pure correctional programs, were recorded. Those receiving interventions were investigated further and compared to the remaining prison population.


A total of 230 of the 928 inmates (25 %) had some form of psychiatric intervention: 184 (20 %) were in individual psychotherapy, in addition 40 (4 %) received ad hoc interventions during the registration week. Group therapy was infrequent (1 %). The psychotherapies were most often of a supportive (62 %) or behavioural-cognitive (26 %) nature. Dynamic, insight-oriented psychotherapies were infrequent (8 %). Concurrent psychopharmacological treatment was prevalent (52 %). Gender and age did not correlate with psychiatric interventions, whereas prisoner category (remanded, sentenced, or preventive detention) did (p < 0.001). Most inmates had a number of defined problem areas, with substance use, depression, anxiety, and personality disorders most prevalent. Three percent of all inmates were treated for a psychotic disorder. Remand prisoners averaged 14 sessions per week per 100 inmates, while sentenced inmates and those on preventive detention averaged 22 and 25 sessions per week per 100 inmates, respectively. Five out of six psychiatric health services estimated the inmates' psychiatric therapy needs as adequately met, both overall and in the majority of individual cases.


Our results pertain only to prisons with adequate primary and mental health services and effective diversion from prison of individuals with serious mental disorders. Given these important limitations, we do propose that the service estimates found may serve as a rough guideline to the minimum number of sessions a prison's psychiatric health services should be able to fulfil in order to serve the inmates psychiatric needs. The results rely on the specialist services' own estimates only. Future studies should take other important informants, including the inmates themselves, into consideration.