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Professional and peer support preferences for women who self-harm in custody

Louise Griffiths (Department of Social Work and Health, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
Di Bailey (Department of Social Work and Health, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
Karen Slade (Department of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)

Journal of Criminal Psychology

ISSN: 2009-3829

Article publication date: 28 June 2019

Issue publication date: 1 August 2019




Peer and professional support are important for women in prison to help them tackle a range of issues including self-harm. To date, research has not explored in any depth how women experience peer support provided in prison to help them manage their self-harm including peer support provided through the Listeners Scheme. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


This was a case study in one women’s prison employing mixed, qualitative methods. These included a questionnaire distributed to women and staff, a focus group with prison listeners, semi-structured interviews with women who self-harmed and semi-structured interviews with prison staff, together with a series of observations in the prison site.


While women in prison welcomed both professional and peer support their support preferences were influenced by how serious women considered their self-harm to be and the degree to which they regarded their relationships with staff as trusting and/or supportive. The therapeutic community (TC) that operated in the prison facilitated different relationships between women who self-harmed in prison and staff, than have hitherto been reported in the research literature. These relationships described by women and staff as “more open” allowed women to seek staff support when managing their self-harm behaviours. Women sought peer support from listeners in addition to staff support particularly at times when staff were unavailable for example at evenings and weekends.

Research limitations/implications

The case study design was conducted in one women’s prison which operated a TC. The principles of the TC that operated in the prison are supported by the wider literature on TCs as conducive to good mental health. Findings are thus relevant for establishments with TCs .


Women opted for support from staff for helping them to manage their severe self-harm, over and above the peer support available through the prison Listener Scheme. This finding contrasts with previous research that suggests women trying to manage their self-harm in prison prioritise support from their peers because staff are often found to harbour unhelpful attitudes to women’s self-harm that makes seeking support difficult.



Griffiths, L., Bailey, D. and Slade, K. (2019), "Professional and peer support preferences for women who self-harm in custody", Journal of Criminal Psychology, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 109-121.



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