Factors associated with the transition from suicidal ideation to suicide attempt in prison

Eur Psychiatry. 2020 Nov 13;63(1):e101. doi: 10.1192/j.eurpsy.2020.101.


Background: Although research has identified a wide range of risk factors for suicidal behavior in prisoners, it does not establish who is most likely to act on their suicidal thoughts while incarcerated.

Methods: Self-report data were collected from a random sample of 1,203 adult men incarcerated across 15 prisons in Belgium, who represent 12% of all male prisoners nationwide.

Results: One-third (33%) of participants reported having suicidal thoughts during their incarceration, of whom 26% attempted suicide in prison (9% of all prisoners). Factors independently associated with suicide attempt among prisoners with suicidal ideation were violent offending (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] = 2.64, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.33-5.23), in-prison drug use (aOR = 2.30, 95% CI 1.25-4.22), exposure to suicidal behavior (aOR = 1.96, 95% CI 1.04-3.68), and a lifetime history of nonsuicidal self-injury (aOR = 1.90, 95% CI 1.08-3.36). While related to suicidal thoughts, markers of psychiatric morbidity and aspects of the prison regime were not associated with the progression to suicide attempt.

Conclusions: Many prisoners who think about suicide do not attempt suicide while incarcerated. Factors associated with suicidal ideation are distinct from those that govern the transition to suicidal behavior. Our findings lend support to the hypothesis that behavioral disinhibition might act as a catalyst in the translation of suicidal thoughts into action.

Keywords: Ideation-to-action; behavioral disinhibition; prison; self-harm; suicide.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Belgium
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prisoners / psychology*
  • Prisons
  • Risk Factors
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / psychology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Suicidal Ideation*
  • Suicide, Attempted / psychology*