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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Study reveals rising suicide rate in female prisoners

Embargoed until 02 February 2009

Suicide is 20 times more common in female prisoners than in the general female population, according to new research.

The research, published in the February issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, also shows that the suicide rate for female prisoners has steadily increased over the last 25 years. And younger prisoners are at greater risk of killing themselves than older inmates.

Psychiatrists Dr Seena Fazel, from the University of Oxford , and Dr Ram Benning, from Derby City Hospital , studied suicides in female prisoners between 1978 and 2004. Eight-three suicides were recorded in total.

The suicide rate for all female prisoners compared with the general female population of similar ages (also known as the standardised mortality ratio or SMR) was 20.7. In other words, female prisoners of all ages were about 20 times more likely to kill themselves than other women. This trend has been steadily increasing over the last 25 years. When the researchers examined the suicide rates by age group, they found that suicide was far more common in younger inmates than older ones. Female prisoners under the age of 25 had an SMR for suicide of 40, compared with 20 for prisoners over the age of 25. This suggests that younger female prisoners are a particularly high-risk group for suicide.

In 2005, Dr Fazel and colleagues examined the suicide rate in male prisoners, and found that suicide was five times more common in male prisoners than in the general population. This new study therefore points to a clear ‘gender gap’ in suicide for male and female prisoners. 

Dr Fazel and Benning put forward a number of explanations for this gender gap. For example, women entering prison may already be at a higher risk of suicide because they have existing mental health problems, such as depression, a history of self-harm, or a drug or alcohol addiction. The prison environment may also affect women differently to men.

Writing in the February issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, they said: “One possible explanation for higher SMR for suicide in female prisoners is that females entering prison may have higher prevalences of risk factors associated with suicide, such as depression, previous self-harm and history of physical and sexual abuse. Substance misuse is a risk factor for prison suicides, and a systematic review has shown that the relative excess misuse in prisoners compared with the general population is higher for female inmates. Another explanation is that prison may specifically increase the vulnerability of females to suicide.”

The researchers say the reasons for the increasing suicide rate in female prisoners over the last 25 years are ‘complex’. However, a likely explanation is that more women are now being convicted for drug-related offences, meaning greater numbers of women are entering prison with drug problems.

The researchers say their latest findings support the need for national initiatives to help prevent suicide in prisoners.

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Nevins
Press & Social Media Officer
Telephone: 020 3701 2543
Claire McLoughlin
Media & Communications Manager 
Telephone: 020 3701 2544
Out of hours contact number: 07860 755896



Fazel S and Benning R (2009) Suicides in female prisoners in England and Wales, 1978-2004, British Journal of Psychiatry, 194: 183-184


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