Suicide and a Stay in Jail

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Suicide and a Stay in Jail  

Jim Windell


            It is not uncommon to hear that someone being detained in jail attempts – or actually succeeds at – killing themselves.

            But it’s worse than that. According to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics report, suicides were the leading cause of jail deaths between 2000 and 2019. In 2019, the suicide rate in jails was over two times that of the general public.

            Why do people in jail taking their own lives so often? A 2020 Reuters investigation looked at that question and suggests three possible reasons.

            One is that a significant proportion of people who land in jail are from marginalized communities and grapple with symptoms of poverty, primarily substance abuse and mental illness, as well as unemployment and homelessness. Second, the prevalence of detained people with serious mental health needs is at odds with the goals, design, operation, and resources in most jails. There is a near absence of mental health treatment or other types of behavioral health services in most jails. Third, the conditions inside most jails are terrible and the treatment often abusive – making them unlikely to offer any respite for people experiencing crises or mental illness. Many jails are places where there are loud and unpredictable noise, bright lights, unsanitary conditions, and often, an atmosphere of threat and violence.

            All of this sheds light on why people who are jailed may try to take their life. However, a new report goes further indicating that just having been jailed may later be associated with suicide.

            The study, published by JAMA Network Open, an American Medical Association journal, found that one in five U.S. adults who die by suicide spent at least one night in jail in the year prior to their death.  

            According to Jennifer Johnson, founding chair of the Charles Stewart Mott Department of Public Health at Michigan State University and a co-author of the study, “The 7.1 million Americans released from jail during the year have an average suicide risk that is nine times the risk of other American adults. Twenty percent of suicides occurred among those who were released from jail in the past year and another 7% were by those in their second year post-release. Focused suicide prevention can and should target this group.”

            Johnson and her research team has noted previously that suicide can be avoided with proper intervention. Community health services can help connect the more than 7 million people per year who are detained in jail for at least one night with the right resources at the right time. The study suggested that health systems, including federally qualified health centers, could serve as vital partners in improving suicide prevention efforts to this population.

            “Many well-established suicide risk factors such as trauma exposure, substance use, mental health difficulties and social disparities are over-represented among those detained in jail; yet jails often struggle with limited resources to adequately screen and intervene,” said Lauren Weinstock, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and co-author of the study.

            Providing health care systems and organizations with information about people who have interacted with the criminal-legal system can be challenging, but past research by this team has indicated there are ways to improve and coordinate. For example, more funding for community mental health at the state and county levels can help avoid criminal-legal involvement for situations like homelessness or public nuisances. In addition, communities can find and implement scalable ways to connect people to community mental health care after a criminal-legal encounter, as well as advancements in technology and publicly available arrest or legal data-sharing to help match people to a health system.

            The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, as of part of the National Center for Health and Justice Integration for Suicide Prevention, or NCHATS, a national research center co-led by Michigan State University, Brown University and Henry Ford Health. NCHATS seeks to build information bridges between healthcare organizations and justice systems to identify individuals at risk for suicide and connect them to care and resources.

            “A major takeaway from the study is the need for health systems to be aware when one of their patients interacts with police, courts or jails,” says study co-author Brian K. Ahmedani, who serves as the director of the Center for Health Policy and Health Services Research and director of research for Behavioral Health Services, at Henry Ford Health. “Timely community outreach to these individuals would reduce suicide deaths nationwide.”

            To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Miller, T. R., Weinstock, L. M., Ahmedani, B. K., Carlson, N. N., Sperber, K., Lê Cook, B., ... & Johnson, J. E. (2024). Share of adult suicides after recent jail release. JAMA network open, 7(5), e249965-e249965.


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