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8 myths about inmate suicide

In the corrections environment, believing myths about inmate suicide can lead to tragic results


Those who have made suicide attempts are at higher risk for actually taking their own lives.


By Diane Geiman

Correctional experts agree that the reduced suicide rates in corrections since the 1970s are due to a greater understanding of suicidal behavior, improved screening at intake and the increased availability of treatment services. Yet despite these gains, suicide continues to be the leading cause of death in jails and ranks third (behind natural causes and AIDS) as the leading cause of death in prisons (National Study of Jail Suicide 20 Years Later, April 2010).

The first step toward preventing these deaths for each correctional worker is to examine his or her beliefs about suicide. Myths abound about the act of killing yourself. In the corrections environment, believing myths about inmate suicide can lead to tragic results.

The eight most common myths about suicide are:

Myth 1: People who make suicidal statements or threaten to kill themselves usually do not do it.

Fact: Most persons who complete suicide have previously made either direct or indirect statements that clearly show their intentions. Researchers tell us that approximately four out of five suicide victims gave definite warnings of their intentions.

Myth 2: Suicides usually occur suddenly and without warning.

Fact: Some suicides are impulsive acts and are more typical among adolescents and persons with impulse disorders. However, most suicidal persons give clues, exhibit warning signs and have a carefully thought-out plan as to how they will kill themselves.

Myth 3: People who have attempted suicide have “gotten it out of their systems” and won’t attempt it again.

Fact: Those who have made suicide attempts are at higher risk for actually taking their own lives. Individuals who have already made an attempt on their life have already broken the taboo against suicide. Self-destructive acts have become part of their behavioral repertoire or “tool kit” to relieve stress, and further suicide attempts become easier.

Myth 4: Most suicidal people want to die.

Fact: Suicidal behavior is an attempt to escape emotional pain, not necessarily to die.

Myth 5: You can’t stop somebody in custody from killing himself or herself if they really want to do it.

Fact: Suicide can be prevented. If suicidal offenders can obtain some help in alleviating stressors or resolving their personal problems, their risk of suicidal behavior will be reduced.

Myth 6: Asking offenders about suicidal thoughts or actions may put ideas in their heads and cause them to harm themselves.

Fact: You cannot make people suicidal or put the idea in their heads if it was not there before. In fact, talking about their thoughts can be a great source of relief to persons considering suicide.

Myth 7: You can easily tell if a person is really suicidal or “just manipulating.”

Fact: Sometimes, even the most seasoned correctional mental health experts can have a hard time telling whether a particular inmate intends to harm him/herself or is “manipulating” to obtain attention, special treatment, or some other selfish goal.

Myth 8: Persons who mutilate their bodies by cutting themselves, swallowing objects and banging their heads are always suicidal.

Fact: Some persons mutilate their bodies without the intent to die, and once they have harmed themselves, they appear to become more relaxed.

Knowing the facts about suicide can help correctional staff prevent inmate suicides. Combined with comprehensive training and staff implementation, such efforts will continue to decrease the rate of suicides in custody.

About the author

Diane Geiman is the Administrator of Online Training/Corrections Online Training Collaborative for the American Correctional Association (ACA). ACA established the Corrections Online Training Collaborative (COTC) with Essential Learning. COTC now includes the American Jail Association, American Probation and Parole Association, and the National Major Gang Task Force. COTC has a National Advisory Board to guide the strategic planning of online training and assist facilities/agencies with implementing e-learning and developing blended learning programs. Suicide prevention courses for adult and juvenile justice professionals are available at ACA’s Online Training Store.

This article, originally published 01/25/2011, has been updated.