Correctional Services: Women and Mental Health

By  | February 11, 2015 | 0 Comments | Filed under: Wellness and Spirituality


In the Victorian era, a quarter of women housed at the Toronto Queen Street Asylum were diagnosed with female trouble–menstrual disorders, childbirth issues, lactation, miscarriage, uterine issues and other natural conditions. These illnesses were sometimes regarded as the causes of what was considered insanity, according to a researcher at

Female criminals (often described as “lunatics”) were an even greater challenge for Canadian doctors, legal professionals and politicians since the culture at the time described women as virtuous and innocent. The fusion of mental illness, criminal behaviour and femininity were regarded as a puzzling incongruent challenge. These women were considered a poor fit in asylums or penitentiaries, though they were shuffled back and forth between them. The institutions housed men as well as women. However, Attorney General Sir John A. Macdonald suggested that the sexes be separated, writes the researcher at the genealogy website. A warden at the time echoed his concern, he says. But after an examination of the issue no proper place was established for these women. “Female criminal lunatics” were locked in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto until they were transferred to the horse stables at Rockwood, near Guelph, in 1857.

From 1934-2000, the only federal institution for women offenders in Canada was the maximum-security Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario. They were housed there regardless of sentence. But in the 1950s, a number of task forces and Royal Commissions examined the challenging situations of these women. In 1989, the federal government established a task force to examine the general situation of women offenders. The report, released in 1990, made a number of recommendations including:

  1. Closing the prison for women

  2. Opening regional institutions and an Aboriginal healing lodge where women-centered programming would be available

  3. Developing a community strategy for women offenders

In 1990, the federal government accepted these recommendations and began implementing them. Between 1995 and 2004, six correctional facilities for women offenders were established across Canada, including the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, 47 km from Cambridge. On May 8, 2000, the last inmate was transferred from Kingston’s Prison for Women.

Furthermore, the position of Deputy Commissioner for Women (DCW) was created in 1996. The DCW provides guidance to staff on women-offender issues, as well as related program and policy development and implementation. And Correctional Service Canada (CSC) monitors and manages operational activities in institutions for women and in the community.

Women who are classified as minimum or medium security level live in units with communal living areas, where they are responsible for their daily personal and domestic needs such as cooking, cleaning and laundry.

Women deemed minimum or medium security who live with mental health issues and/or cognitive limitations are accommodated in units called Structured Living Environments (SLE), where staff with specialized training provide various kinds of help and supervision.

Women classified as maximum security live in secure units (SU), where higher-level intervention and supervision is provided by staff who are also specially trained.

In the community, CSC operates a number of Women’s Supervision Units (WSU). These are run by parole officers who use a team-based, gender-sensitive approach towards female offenders.

Psychiatric programs for women with various forms of mental illness have also been established in recent years. For instance, the Women’s Mental Health Program at Women’s College Hospital located at 76 Grenville Street in Toronto is special in Canada. A teaching hospital associated with the University of Toronto, professionals there help women who have depression and anxiety associated with menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause; women who have issues that result from childhood abuse or neglect; and women who have mental health issues associated with medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. These patients are treated with sensitivity, respect and care, unlike Victorian women who were sometimes condemned, labeled and incarcerated by Canadian medical and legal professionals. The Women’s College Hospital boasts an interdisciplinary Women’s Health Program which provides “innovative, women’s-centered mental health treatment, education and research,” they say. Medical staff there strive to “work collaboratively with patients who experience the psychological after-effects of trauma, medical illness and/or challenges related to their reproductive health,” they add.

As a result, Women’s College Hospital is considered an international force in women’s mental health. In 1988, it established the Brief Psychotherapy Centre for Women which is somewhat unique because women do not require a referral from a physician to receive help. In 1998, it created the Women Recovering from Abuse Program (WRAP), an intensive group therapy program with accompanying individual therapy for women who have experienced physical, emotional, sexual abuse and/or neglect in their childhood or teen years.

Research in many locations have established a strong association between trauma, violence and mental health. For women, problems most commonly associated with the experience of violence include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, associative identity disorder, psychosis, and eating disorders. For men, similar maltreatment has been linked to alcoholism.

New mental-health programs designed for women, such as those at Women’s College Hospital, are vital since depression, predicted by Harvard University Press to be the leading cause of global disability by 2020, is twice as common in women than men. Moreover, women are often primary care givers at home and experience stress balancing their contemporary roles as mothers and employees. As a result, they have unique health-care needs

Also, the Ontario Canadian Mental Health Association has found that there is a significant correlation between a history of sexual abuse and the lifetime number of suicide attempts, and this behaviour is twice as common in women.

Such frightening statistics are combated at Carizon Family and Community Services located at 400 Queen St. South in Kitchener. The therapy centre currently offers at least five programs for girls and women who have suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse or are experiencing difficult times. Carizon even invites women to heal with creativity and to investigate their own healing journey through a variety of artistic outlets. They also work with other agencies to address sexual abuse including specialized staff at St. Mary’s Hospital and at the Crown Attorney’s office. In addition, they have satellite offices in Cambridge at Langs located at 1145 Concession Rd. where individual and family violence counselling is available.

So, the good news is that women are beginning to receive special care, though even in recent years were more likely to be prescribed unnecessary mood-altering psychotropic drugs than men. At times, they have also received incorrect diagnoses and treatment, or have been denied medical or legal services because their symptoms were misunderstood or stigmatized. But these practices are evolving in Canada and the systems are healing.


April Bulmer’s newest book of poetry is called Women of the Cloth (Black Moss Press) and celebrates a syncretism of Christianity and paganism. She holds Master’s degrees in creative writing, religious studies and theological studies.

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