Distinguishing prisoners who think about suicide from those who attempt suicide

Psychol Med. 2021 Jan;51(2):228-235. doi: 10.1017/S0033291719003118. Epub 2019 Nov 18.


Background: Many people who consider suicide do not translate these intentions into action. Although prisoners constitute a particularly high-risk group for suicide, little is known about the factors that distinguish those who think about suicide from those who attempt suicide.

Methods: Participants were 1326 adult offenders (1203 men) randomly selected from 15 Belgian prisons, representing 14% of the national prison population. Multivariate regression analysis compared prisoners who attempted suicide (n = 277) with those who thought about suicide but never made an attempt (n = 312) on a range of established risk factors.

Results: Among the 589 participants reporting a lifetime history of suicidal ideation (44% of the total sample), almost half (47%) had made a suicide attempt. Relative to those who only thought about suicide, participants who attempted suicide were more likely to be violent offenders (aOR 2.33, 95% CI 1.49-3.62) and have a history of non-suicidal self-injury (aOR 3.19, 95% CI 2.09-4.86). The presence of self-reported mental disorder diagnosis (aOR = 2.84, 95% CI 1.91-4.24) and illicit substance abuse (aOR = 2.01, 95% CI 1.24-3.28) also independently differentiated prisoners who attempted v. considered suicide.

Conclusion: This study provides preliminary evidence that behavioural and mental health factors are implicated in the transition from thoughts to acts of suicide in prisoners. Prospective studies are warranted to explore whether these risk factors predict progression from ideation to action over time.

Keywords: Ideation-to-action; offender; self-harm; suicidal behaviour; suicidal process.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Belgium / epidemiology
  • Criminals / psychology
  • Criminals / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prisoners / psychology*
  • Prisoners / statistics & numerical data
  • Risk Factors
  • Suicidal Ideation*
  • Suicide, Attempted / psychology*
  • Suicide, Attempted / statistics & numerical data
  • Young Adult