Suicide Prevention: Learning About the ‘Listener’ Programme in Mount Gambier Prison in South Australia
LifeLine (Australia) post 3 of 3
Prisoners worldwide are recognised as a vulnerable population who are significantly at risk of dying by suicide. The majority of prisoners are imprisoned for relatively short periods of time and are then released back into the community. Mount Gambier is the first local government in South Australia that includes its local prison (Mount Gambier prison) when developing its Community Suicide Prevention Action Plan. Eve Barratt, a psychologist and Director of Lifeline (Australia) has developed a strong partnership with Mount Gambier prison since 1995. This occurred when she was asked to provide suicide awareness training for prison staff at the newly opened prison.
Eve has subsequently introduced the ‘Listener’ programme into Mount Gambier prison, which is a peer support scheme whereby, selected prisoners are trained and supported to listen in complete confidence to other prisoners who may be feeling suicidal. The aim is to help alleviate distress amongst the most vulnerable prisoners. This service was first introduced into UK prisons by the Samaritans.
The ‘Listener’ service in Mount Gambier prison has run continuously for 19 years and is the longest running suicide prevention peer support programme run in prison establishments in the whole of Australia. Eve explained that the ‘Listener’ programme in Mount Gambier, draws heavily on the recommendations made in 1989, by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons on the prevention of suicide and self harm. However, the training differs from the UK ‘Listener’ programme as it has been adapted so that it is suitable and relevant to indigenous prisoners (e.g. Aborigines). This is especially important as Aborigines are over-represented in the suicide rates in Australian prisons.
Additional ‘Listeners’ are recruited every 18 months. Between 12-16 prisoners are selected and trained as ‘Listeners’. Eve ensures that Indigenous prisoners are also included in the new recruits. She explained that one Listener has been with the programme for the entire time the ‘Listener’ service has been running.
Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) TRAINING
Eve has recently managed to secure funding to run ‘Living Works ASIST two day workshop for prisoners and then ‘Listeners’ separately. ASIST workshops are designed for caregivers who want to feel more confident and competent in helping to prevent the immediate risk of suicide. To my knowledge this training is not provided to prison officers and ‘Listeners’ in the UK.
As mentioned previously Eve Barratt from Lifeline (Australia) has supported the ‘Listener’ service for the 19 years it has been implemented in Mount Gambier Prison. Eve arranged for me to meet five male prisoners who are ‘Listeners’ during my visit to Mount Gambier prison. This enabled me to learn about the prisoner’s perspective of being a ‘Listener’. We met in one of the meeting rooms. Three were white Australian, one was Vietnamese and two were Aborigines. Some of the ‘Listeners’ that I met had received a life sentence.
On meeting the Listeners, it was evident that they had an excellent working relationship with Eve. All were very proud to be a ‘Listener.’ During the meeting I asked them about their experiences and roles. They explained that they are placed on a rota and that their role as ‘Listener’ was in addition to their full time paid work within the prison. The purpose of the rota was to enable them to plan their week and create a clear definition to others, when they were active ‘Listeners’ and when they were not. Several in the group explained that often there were blurred boundaries, as they were ‘Listeners’ in the environment in which they were housed. This would result in some prisoners actively seeking support from them, when it was not their allocated time to be a ‘Listener.’ Also some prisoners would only speak to one specific Listener, which could be problematic. For example, one prisoner had severe mental health problems and insisted on speaking to the same ‘Listener’ every day. The ‘Listener’ explained that he felt could feel of his depth when this happened.
The Vietnamese ‘Listener’ also stated that more attention should be paid to the sense of isolation amongst prisoners who are unable to speak English and are unable to communicate to anyone in the prison on a daily basis. He referred to one prisoner who was experiencing such difficulties.
Two Aborigines were in the group of ‘Listeners’ that I spoke to. One was in his 20’s and the other in his 50s. The older Aborigine explained that he takes recently detained Aborigine prisoners under his wing, so that he can guide them on the ‘white man’s way’ whilst they are imprisoned. This is possibly, another example of the parallel worlds amongst white Australians and Aborigines, regardless of whether they are imprisoned or not.
Facts about Prisoners in the UK:
- Prisoners are recognised as a high risk group in the National Suicide Prevention Strategy;
- 72% of prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders;
- 20% have four of the five major mental health disorders;
- 10% of male and 30% of women offenders have had a previous psychiatric disorder prior to being imprisoned; and
- At any one time 10% of the prison population has ‘serious mental health problems.
The following link will provide additional information about prisoners in the UK.
I would like to thank the following people:
- Eve Barratt, Director of Lifeline for finding the time to meet me and arrange my day at Mount Gambier prison;
- the Governor of Mount Gambier prison for allowing me to visit his establishment and meet the ‘Listeners’;
- Alan Bridges, Programme Manager and Leyha Bruggemann, social worker at Mount Gambier prison who enthusiastically showed me around the prison; and
- the five prisoners who shared their experiences as a ‘Listener.’