Juvenile Suicide in Confinement: A National Survey

By Hayes, Lindsay M. | Corrections Today, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Juvenile Suicide in Confinement: A National Survey


Hayes, Lindsay M., Corrections Today


D.H., 17, hanged himself with a bed sheet tied to the cell door at a juvenile detention facility in a southern state on Jan. 6. M.S., 14, hanged herself with a bed sheet tied to a shower brace at a public juvenile training school in a western state on Dec. 22, 1999. J.S., 16, hanged himself with a bed sheet tied to a sprinkler head on the ceiling of his room at a county juvenile boot camp in an eastern state on Nov. 2,1999. K.T., 13, hanged himself with a bed sheet tied to a ceiling grate at a private juvenile training school in a northwestern state on Oct. 15, 1999.

These deaths represent only a handful of the unknown number of suicides that occur each year in juvenile facilities across the country. Youth suicide in the general population is a major public health problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of 1995, the suicide rate of adolescents (ages 15 to 19) has quadrupled from 2.7 per 100,000 in 1950 to 10.8 per 100,000 in 1992. More teen-agers die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia and influenza, and chronic lung disease combined, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Until now, there has not been any comparable national research conducted regarding the nature and extent of juvenile suicide in confinement. The only national survey of juvenile suicides in custody contained several flaws in the calculation of suicide rates. Re-analysis of suicide rates in that study found that youth suicide in juvenile detention centers was estimated to be more than four times greater than the general population. Despite this statistical analysis, there still is no information available regarding the circumstances surrounding juvenile suicide in confinement.

What Is Known

Research has identified mental disorders and substance abuse as the most important set of risk factors for adolescent suicide in the general population. Other risk factors included impulsive aggression, parental depression and substance abuse, family discord and abuse, and poor family support. Life stressors, specifically interpersonal conflict and loss, as well as legal and disciplinary problems, also were associated with suicidal behavior in adolescents, particularly those who were substance abusers. It can be argued that many of these risk factors are prevalent in youths confined in juvenile facilities.

Although historically, there have not been any comprehensive national data regarding the incidence of youth suicide in custody, there is information suggesting a high prevalence of suicidal behavior in juvenile correctional facilities. According to one recent study, more than 11,000 juveniles are estimated to engage in more than 17,000 incidents of suicidal behavior in juvenile facilities each year. In addition, the limited research on juvenile suicide in custody suggests that confined youths may be more vulnerable to suicidal behavior based on current and/or prior suicidal ideation. For example, one study found that incarcerated youths with either major affective disorders or borderline personality disorders had higher degrees of suicidal ideation and more suicide attempts than adolescents in the general population.

Other studies have found that a high percentage of detained youths reported prior histories of suicide attempts, current and active suicidal behavior, and prior histories of psychiatric hospitalization. Two recent studies of youths confined in juvenile detention facilities found that suicidal behavior in males was associated with depression and decreased social connection, whereas suicidal behavior in females was associated with impulsivity and instability. Finally, other researchers have found high rates of suicidal behavior and psychiatric disorders among American Indian youths confined in juvenile facilities.

The Project

Beginning last August, the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA) initiated a project to conduct the first national study of juvenile suicide in confinement. …

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