Gallows humor for a scaffold setting: managing aggressive patients on a maximum-security forensic unit

Hosp Community Psychiatry. 1988 Oct;39(10):1085-90. doi: 10.1176/ps.39.10.1085.


Gallows humor, as depicted in television shows such as MASH and Hill Street Blues, fulfills important psychological and sociological functions in maintaining therapeutic attitudes in the stressful and sometimes dangerous milieu of a maximum-security psychiatric unit. Humor provides an emotional language with which the unit's staff mark the sense of incongruity that characterizes their work. Staff invoke humor to move away from a macho attitude in their interactions with aggressive patients. Humor also bolsters staff solidarity through playful inversions of the usual patterns of authority.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Attitude to Death
  • Commitment of Mentally Ill*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prisoners / psychology*
  • Professional-Patient Relations
  • Security Measures*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Wisconsin
  • Wit and Humor as Topic*