I thought I’d share what I saw on my Twitter feed as soon as I got up recently. I immediately felt a blog post coming on, particularly after reading the Twitter comments as they rolled in. I felt a bit sick, knowing what some of my colleagues in Ohio must be going through right now. This post is for you.
When it comes to patient suicide, correctional psychiatry is probably one of the higher risk subspecialties within psychiatry. The average prisoner has three risk factors for suicide before he even steps into the facility: he’s male, young, and has an active substance abuse problem. There’s even a recent study to suggest that being charged with a crime increases one’s risk of suicide, even if that person is never incarcerated.
Considering this, if you practice correctional health care for a few years it’s pretty likely that at some point you will experience a patient suicide, either as a health care first responder, as an administrator or as a mental health clinician. I feel like I need to write this blog post to warn you about something: Don’t expect your friends, family and colleagues to understand why you’re upset that somebody died.
I know that sounds counterintuitive, but that’s just the reality of correctional health care. The general public — and even some physicians — are going to instinctively give you a “who cares, he’s just a criminal” response even if they don’t know the person or what he was locked up for.
Let’s consider the responses I’ve seen regarding the suicide of Ariel Castro, the man who kidnapped three women and held them prisoner for several years (comments drawn from a network news site):
- Great news! Seriously, it’s great that Ohio taxpayers won’t have to pay to house and feed this scum bucket.
- He did society and himself a favor … good thing he’s gone!
- Too bad that he didn’t live to be locked up and suffer for a few decades.
- Too bad he couldn’t have been chained to a wall while the inmates he was being protected from got rewarded for taking turns demonstrating the receiving end of his version of the universe. Can’t exactly hang yourself when your chained to a wall. Cruel and unusual? If it’s not cruel and unusual, it’s not punishment.
Yeah, that could be your patient they’re talking about. And all your patients watching the news or reading a newspaper will see this public reaction and know that the rest of the world truly could care less about them. Your job, temporarily, is about to become much harder. Fingers will be pointed, armchair psychologists who have never set foot in your facility will “know” how the system or you as a clinician must have failed, and new redundant policies will be created that will make your health care delivery system less efficient.
This will pass. Eventually, people will grasp the fact that this man who successfully hid multiple felonies for several decades probably also had the skill to hide a planned suicide attempt. Your colleagues in other parts of the country will step up to the plate to remind the media, and the general public, that correctional and forensic psychiatrists are taking an active role to implement suicide prevention policies and training that have dropped the correctional suicide rate substantially in the last twenty years.
And maybe, just maybe, it will lead people to recognize the importance of what you do.
Annette Hanson is a psychiatrist and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work. She blogs at Shrink Rap.