Supporting young prisoners with ADHD
Towards the end of 2016, Kings College London (KCL) announced that it was to undertake a major study programme that would examine a potential treatment for ADHD among young male prisoners.
While research on the issue is patchy, up to 30% of young prisoners are believed to have the disorder, compared to around 3%-4% of the broader population. But it is often left undiagnosed, in part because a number of the symptoms––such as personality disorder, anxiety, and substance abuse––overlap with other mental health issues. As a consequence, the effect of treating ADHD in prisoners remains unclear.
The issue had already been a subject of media attention earlier in the year. In April, a charity called for prison officers at young offenders’ centres in Northern Ireland to receive mandatory training in both spotting and understanding ADHD. Its call for action followed the publication of analysis, by ADD-NI, which suggested that at least 70% of the young people in one of these centres had the disorder.
KCL’s three-year study programme is to focus specifically on the potential for a drug called methylphenidate (MPH) to reduce the symptoms of ADHD among young male prisoners. It works by increasing dopamine levels in the brain, which in turn strengthens the brain’s activity in areas related to attention and behaviour regulation. It could, KCL said, have a “huge impact on improved self-control of behaviour and function in education and work”.
An earlier, Swedish study, which involved use of the drug, showed signs of promise. It found a six-fold higher rate of criminal convictions in adults with ADHD, but a 30%-40% cut in crime during periods of treatment with MPH.
Meanwhile, a pilot study of the drug by KCL has also yielded positive news. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons said that the trial, which involved 100 prisoners at HMP Isis, had left some prisoners saying that they were, for the first time in their lives, experiencing a measure of “stability”. It argued that prisoners who were treated for ADHD should, following their release, continued to be prescribed with medication and ongoing specialist support.
Professor Philip Asherson, who is leading the investigation, said:
“If the treatment is effective in a prison setting, this will pose bigger questions around what happens to prisoners when they are released. Does it lead to better functioning in society and a drop in subsequent criminal offending? These are the issues we will seek to examine in future research.”