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The findings of the 1989 Mental Health Survey (in Creating Choices, 1990) commissioned by the Correctional Service of Canada indicate that the types and incidence of mental health problems are different for men and women and that some mental health problems experienced by women offenders can be linked directly to past experiences of early and/or continued sexual abuse, physical abuse and assault. The research supports the need to provide appropriate mental health services oriented to the specific needs of women offenders.

Overall, women outnumber men in all major psychiatric diagnoses with the exception of Anti-Social Personality Disorder. Differences also exist in the behavioral manifestations of mental illness between men and women. In general, men turn their anger outward while women turn theirs inward and women suffer from approximately twice as much depression as men (federally incarcerated women are three times as likely to be moderately to severely depressed compared to incarcerated men). Men tend to be more physically and sexually threatening and assaultive while women are more self-abusive and suicidal. Women tend to engage in self-mutilating behaviors such as slashing, and verbally abusive and disruptive behaviors (see Appendix A - Gender Differences with respect to Mental Health).

In addition, important mental health differences exist between women in prison and women in general. In a study (Ross 1988) comparing women in prison matched by age and ethnicity to those in the community, women in prison had a significantly higher incidence of mental disorders including: schizophrenia, major depression, substance use disorders, psychosexual dysfunction, and antisocial personality disorder. In addition, studies have shown that incarcerated women have a much higher incidence of a history of childhood sexual abuse and a history of severe physical abuse than women in the general population (see Appendix B - Mental Health Problems of Incarcerated Women Compared with Those of Women in General Population).

Creating Choices, "The Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women", notes, as a result of research done with women offenders, that there is a strong need for improved access to physical and mental health services. The report includes the results of a survey of 170 of the 203 women serving federal sentences in 1989 which found that two thirds of the women had children and more than 70% had been single parents part or all of their children's lives; 80% had been abused, 68% reported physical abuse and 54% reported sexual abuse; and 69% reported that substance abuse had played a major role in their offense or their offending history. Among incarcerated aboriginal women 90% had been physically abused and 61% reported sexual abuse (Shaw 1990).

A study of the mental health needs of 75 women at the Burnaby Correctional Centre found the following:

These findings are also consistent with the findings of other recent studies of the mental health needs of women in jails, detention facilities and prisons in both Canada and the U.S.

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