Prevalence and appropriateness of psychotropic medication prescribing in a nationally representative cross-sectional survey of male and female prisoners in England

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Mental illness is highly prevalent among prisoners. Although psychotropic medicines can ameliorate symptoms of mental illness, prescribers in prisons must balance clinical needs against risks to safety and security. Concerns have been raised at the large number of prisoners reportedly receiving psychotropic medicines in England. Nonetheless, unlike for the wider community, robust prescribing data are not routinely available for prisons. We investigated gender-specific patterns in the prevalence and appropriateness of psychotropic prescribing in English prisons.

We studied 6052 men and 785 women in 11 prisons throughout England. This represented 7.9 % of male and 20.5 % of female prisoners nationally. Using a cross-sectional design, demographic and prescription data were collected from clinical records of all prisoners prescribed psychotropic medicines, including hypnotic, anxiolytic, antipsychotic, anti-manic, antidepressant and Central Nervous System stimulant medications. Percentages and 95 % CIs were used to estimate the prevalence of prescribing. The Prescribing Appropriate Indicators tool was used to determine appropriateness. Prevalence Ratios (PR) were generated to make age-adjusted comparisons between prisoners and the general population using a dataset supplied by the Clinical Practice Research Datalink.

Overall, 47.9 % (CI 44.4–51.4) of women and 16.9 % (CI 16.0–17.9) of men in prison were prescribed one or more psychotropic medicines. Compared with the general population, age-adjusted prescribing prevalence was six times higher among women (PR 5.95 CI 5.36–6.61) and four times higher among men (PR 4.02 CI 3.75–4.30). Undocumented or unapproved indications for prescriptions, not listed in the British National Formulary, were recorded in a third (34.7 %, CI 32.5–37.0) of cases, most commonly low mood and personality disorder.

Psychotropic medicines were prescribed frequently in prisons, especially among women, and for a wider range of indications than are currently recommended. These findings raise questions about whether the prescribing of psychotropic medicines in prisons is wholly appropriate and proportionate to the level of clinical need. Prisons need to develop a wider array of treatment responses, other than medicines, to effectively tackle mental illness, challenging behaviours and distress.
Original languageEnglish
Article number346
JournalBMC Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 10 Oct 2016


  • Prescribing
  • Psychotropic
  • Prison
  • Gender
  • Antidepressants
  • Antipsychotics
  • Mental illness


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