Substance use experts tackle health inequalities among people released from prison

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New research is set to explore how health services can better support people released from prison in a bid to reduce the numbers dying from substance use, overdose, and suicide.

The study – led by researchers at a specialist addiction centre at the University of Stirling – is seeking to understand how individuals released from Scotland’s prisons use health services and any barriers which prevent them from accessing healthcare.

Dr Catriona Connell, from the Salvation Army Centre for Addiction Services and Research, and Professor Kate Hunt, from the Institute for Social Marketing and Health, both based at the University of Stirling, have received funding from the Chief Scientist Office for the two-year ‘RELEASE’ project.

The research will also involve experts with direct experience of prison and academics from Edinburgh Napier University and the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow.

Dr Connell said: “About 15,000 people every year are released from prison in Scotland and we know that they are more likely than others to die by suicide, drug overdose, and illness linked to mental health and drug and alcohol use.

“The high rate of death suggests they are not getting the support they need.

“This research aims to establish where and how this group is accessing health services, with a view to potentially amending systems and practices to help people access services earlier and at the point where they need them.

“We know from international research that people who have been in prison do not tend to use preventive care and, as a result, disproportionately attend accident and emergency.

“We hope by understanding how this group currently use health services, we can design interventions and strategies to link them to the right service, at the right time, and make an impact on drug related deaths and suicide rates.”

The research team will review existing anonymised health data to compare people released from prison to those who have not been in prison, and look at differences based on age, sex, ethnicity, and local area. A series of focus groups, including people from across Scotland with experience of prison and relevant health and justice professionals, will then be used to gather views and information on why people who have been in prison might access services in the way they do, or why they don't use health services.

The RELEASE project, 'Understanding mental health and substance use service utilisation by people released from prison: A mixed-methods study', has received funding of £299,595 from the Chief Scientist Office and will report its findings in May 2024.