Jan 28, 2013

Jail suicide prevention lessons for post-Newtown America

When I was putting together suicide prevention training programs for courts and jails, one of my favorite resources was Jail Suicide/Mental Health Update, a quarterly newsletter from Lindsay Hayes, Project Director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.

Every issue reinforced a single concept: You can’t base safety policies on what inmates say about their intentions.

Case after case of death in custody involved a quote from a deputy jailer about the deceased inmate to the effect that “the decedent denied that he was suicidal.”

Jail suicide experts know the correct response to that denial is “So what.”

Effective suicide prevention, like any security process, involves more than one line of defense. Certainly one must do more than rely on what a person in custody says. As Kay Redfield Jamison notes in her book Night Falls Fast, “If suicidal individuals were either willing or able to articulate the severity of their suicidal thoughts and plans, little risk would exist.”

Effective jail suicide prevention programs are systematic. They involve multiple overlapping sets of proactive measures: Intake screening that takes objective factors into account. Access to mental health services. Observation. Safe environments.

Systematic suicide prevention saves lives in jails. It can save lives in our larger society too. It is our best hope for preventing mass murder tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, the Portland mall shootings, the Aurora theater killings, the Sikh Temple shooting, the Chardon school shooting, and others.

Mass killers are suicide killers, with homicidal intent layered on. According to Adam Lankford’s new book The Myth of Martyrdom: What really drives suicide bombers, rampage shooters and other self-destructive killers, these “indirect suicidal killers” inflict damage on others to induce their own deaths. Consciously or subconsciously, the attacker is telling a story of bravado or revenge or martyrdom, in order to hide a life filled with failure and rage, and cover over the stigma and disgrace of conventional suicide.

The only effective mass murder prevention strategy is bigger than gun control, bigger than mental health. It’s suicide prevention. At a minimum, the strategy must address three elements.
  •     Suicidal intent
  •     Access to weapons
  •     Access to targets
More to come.

Lankford, Adam. (2013). The Myth of Martyrdom: What really drives suicide bombers, rampage shooters and other self-destructive killers. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan

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