Concept of the Month -- February 2007

The Criminal and Suicidal Thinking

It is not unusual for men and women who make crime a way of life to have suicidal thoughts. Some make suicidal gestures. And, occasionally, an offender commits suicide.

The content of suicidal thinking is not what one might expect. For people who think life is not worth living (I am not speaking here of individuals with a terminal illness), many believe that they are never going to make, that something is wrong with them. They despair, abandon hope. For the criminal, there is anger and despair at a world that will not give them what they believe they are due. In other words, it is not they who have the shortcomings; it is the world around them. There is also an event or, more likely, a series of events in which there is a collapse of the high opinion they have of themselves. Life is not going according to their expectations.

For some offenders, the ultimate control tactic is to threaten suicide or make a gesture. Clearly, this alarms people in their environment, whether it is parents, a spouse, or staff at a correctional or psychiatric facility. A seventeen year old girl tried to fashion a noose out of a bed sheet at a juvenile detention center. A staff member interrupted this act and placed her on a special suicide watch. She was outraged. When I spoke with her, she confessed that she merely wanted to be thought of as having an emergency and then get moved to a local hospital where she would have more freedom and be able to have her boy friend visit. I explained that no staff member could read her mind, that staff had to take what appeared to be a suicide attempt seriously and take suitable precautions.

Suicide attempts must be taken seriously. Measures must be taken to prevent the offender from hurting himself or herself. It is important, however, to explore the thinking preceding the suicidal gesture or effort and all its ramifications.

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