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Study indicates first steps towards preventing suicide attempts by offenders

Posted on August 10th 2015

Suicide among prison offenders is common and the risk of suicide for male offenders leaving prison is eight times the national average, with over a quarter of fatal suicide attempts happening within the first four weeks of release. While the risk of suicide by offenders in prison has been identified as a priority for action, understanding and preventing suicides among offenders after their release has received far less attention.  

However, a new study conducted by Plymouth Medical School and supported by the NIHR and PenCLAHRC, has addressed this issue, identifying the need for a support system to help prevent suicide attempts. The results of the study have recently been published in The Journal of the Sociology of Health and Illness.

The research team, led by Professor Richard Byng, interviewed 35 male offenders from a Category B, medium secure prison in the South West of England. Interviews took place one week prior to and approximately six weeks after release. The interviewees were aged between 18 and 52.

Eighteen of the 35 interviewees had attempted suicide at some time and most had troubled personal lives, with

  • 24 experiencing a family breakdown or abandonment as children
  • 26 sharing tales of physical abuse or neglect
  • 15 having experienced excessive drug and alcohol use in their family homes
  • All reporting recent personal problems.

The research showed that those who had attempted suicide fell into two groups: those who have had multiple attempts and those who have had singular attempts. The multiple attempters tended to feel less in control of their situation and used less violent methods, while those who had singular attempts often used more violent methods, increasing the likihood of a fatality.

Those at most risk are so-called ‘revolvers’ or ‘churners’ – frequently in and out of prison. Their lives revolve between chaotic existences in the community and spells in custody. As such, often they are not under the supervision of probation services, neither do they have meaningful contact with primary care or specialist mental health services.

By focusing the enquiry on understanding why only some offenders attempt suicide (and why those who do made single or repeated attempts), the research team were able to identify the potential components which might make an effective support structure.

The findings suggest that in order to have any possibility of addressing the complex needs of offenders at risk, an effective support structure would need to incorporate aid from primary and secondary mental health care, input from drug and alcohol teams and help with accommodation, employment and relationship problems.

Professor Richard Byng from Plymouth University said:

“Suicide by offenders released from prison is under investigated. Our study reveals that it is not just those multiple attempter’s at most obvious risk that require attention, but also those more hidden ‘one off’ attempters whose efforts are more violent and more likely to result in fatality. Care for those at risk of suicide will require not only a full assessment of risks and their needs, but also an acute understanding of where an individual is on the pathway to suicide. Our study suggests that there is a group of high risk individuals with no previous attempt at suicide for whom identification and engagement is critical.”

Dr Christabel Owens at the University of Exeter Medical School, who collaborated on the study, added:

“These in-depth interviews with offenders provide incredibly rich insight into the lives of this vulnerable group, their struggle to break out of repeated cycles of despair and self-destructive behaviour, and the fragility of their hopes and aspirations. Theirs are powerful and rarely-heard stories.” 

Professor Byng is working on a number of projects on the topic of offender mental health. You can read more about the Engager and COCOA projects on our website.

Photo credit: Plymouth University

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