8 myths about inmate suicide
By Diane Geiman
Editor’s note: Diane Geiman is the Administrator of Online Training/Corrections Online Training Collaborative for the American Correctional Association, which holds its annual Winter Conference in San Antonio next weekend.
Correctional experts agree that the reduced suicide rates in corrections since the seventies 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 Study 20 Years Later, April 2010).
The first step toward preventing these deaths for each correctional worker is to examine his/her beliefs about suicide. Myths abound about the act of killing yourself. Many people hear them often and believe they must be true — e.g., “most suicidal people want to die” and “you can’t stop someone who wants to commit suicide.” In the corrections environment, believing such myths can lead to tragic results.
The eight most common myths about suicide are:
Myth #1: Suicidal statements aren’t serious: 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 happen quickly: 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: Once they try, they won’t try again: 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: They want to die: 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 them. 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: You shouldn’t talk about it. 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: Manipulators are easy to spot: 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: Self-injurers want to die: 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 will place correctional staff in the right direction toward preventing suicides and custody. Combined with comprehensive training and staff implementation, such efforts will continue to decrease the rate of suicides in custody.
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.