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We examined the psychosocial influences on female prisoner suicide by carrying out a study of near-lethal self-harm. We interviewed 60 women prisoners who had recently engaged in near-lethal self-harm (cases) and 60 others who had never carried out near-lethal acts in prison (controls) from all closed female prison establishments in England and Wales, using mixed quantitative and qualitative methods. We gathered information on socio-demographic and criminological variables, life events and childhood trauma, exposure to suicidal behaviour, contributory and precipitating factors for near-lethal self-harm, social support and psychological characteristics. While socio-demographic factors were only modestly associated with near-lethal self-harm, being on remand, in single cell accommodation, and reporting negative experiences of imprisonment were strong correlates. Recent life events and past trauma, including different forms of childhood abuse, were also significantly associated with near-lethal self-harm, as were a family history of suicide and high scores on measures of depression, aggression, impulsivity and hostility, and low levels of self-esteem and social support. Our findings underline the importance of both individual and prison-related factors for suicide in custody, and hence the need for a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention in women's prisons. Given the multiple needs of female prisoners at-risk of self-harm and suicide, complex psychosocial interventions are likely to be required, including interventions for abused and bereaved women, and initiatives to improve staff-prisoner relationships and reduce bullying. The findings of this research may provide insights into factors leading to suicidal behaviour in other forensic and institutional settings, such as detention centres and psychiatric hospitals, and may assist in developing suicide prevention policies for prisoners and other at-risk populations.

Original publication

DOI

10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.12.028

Type

Journal article

Journal

Soc Sci Med

Publication Date

03/2011

Volume

72

Pages

874 - 883

Keywords

Adult, Case-Control Studies, England, Female, Humans, Interviews as Topic, Prisoners, Self-Injurious Behavior, Social Environment, Social Support, Suicide, Wales, Young Adult