Tunis, 10 October 2022. In October, people around the world marked World Mental Health Day – an international day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma. In Tunisia, UNODC’s Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa (ROMENA) came together with the Ministry of Justice and the General Committee for Prisons and Rehabilitation for a seminar on an innovative programme that introduces Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) into mental health services in prisons. The programme was developed by Tunisia with the support of UNODC technical expertise.
Research has shown that people in prison are more likely than the general population to suffer from mental health problems, with prisoners often having other vulnerabilities, such as substance misuse problems, poor physical health, learning difficulties and histories of trauma. Prisoners’ mental health is also likely to worsen in prison, as they are subject to new pressures and often bad conditions. Access to healthcare is limited in many prisons, and this also applies to mental healthcare.
Yet ensuring that prisoners receive mental health support is vital – not only for the wellbeing of the prisoners themselves, but in order to rehabilitate prisoners, reducing reoffending and making our societies safer.
CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can help people change the way they think and behave. It focuses on how thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect feelings and actions. The programme in Tunisia, the first of its kind, aims to develop and introduce CBT into mental health services in three pilot prisons to support behaviour change, rehabilitation, and the prevention of violence. The eventual aim is to reduce recidivism among vulnerable detainees.
“This new programme places Tunisia as the first country in the region to develop and implement CBT programmes in prison as a strategy to facilitate rehabilitation and behaviour change among vulnerable detainees, and so contribute to reducing recidivism,” commented Dr. Ilyes Kessal, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer at UNODC. “This innovative project also pulls together national institutions, UN agencies, civil society organizations and academic institutes.”
Following on from the seminar on World Mental Health Day, prison staff will be trained in CBT in workshops organized in collaboration with local NGOs.
UNODC ROMENA and the General Committee for Prisons and Rehabilitation have also signed a partnership with the Tunis Faculty of Medicine, where a CBT masterclass has been launched for 20 prison mental health staff. Their training will be ongoing, with training continuing twice annually.
The programme’s impact across the three pilot prisons will be evaluated. If successful, the Tunisian authorities and UNODC hope that it will be implemented in further prisons in Tunisia and beyond.
Mental health support in prisons should be delivered as part of broader prison reform efforts and in compliance with international norms and standards, such as the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Nelson Mandela Rules).