According to the World Prison Population List, approximately 10 million people around the world are in prison. Almost one-half of these prisoners are found in the United States, Russia and China.
A new study conducted by researchers at Karolinska Institutet shows that imprisonment increases the risk of suicide by a factor of as much as 18.
The risk peaks in the first few months after release, especially the first four weeks. Substance abusers and people with a history of attempted suicide are in particular danger.
Finn Gjertsen, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, believes that the result is consistent with other studies, including a study from England and Wales.
The causes of suicide are complex, he explains. The research shows that different types of trauma early in life, previous self-harm, drug and alcohol addiction and broken relationships are some of the key factors.
“These kinds of conditions may result in increased vulnerability and a sense of hopelessness in the face of difficult life situations,” says Gjertsen.
The Swedish study shows that age and gender do not affect the risk of suicide, but that substance abuse and mental health diagnoses are important.
“This study provides no answers when it comes to causes. One possible explanation is that the inmates did receive treatment for depression,” says Axel Haglund, one of the researchers behind the study, in a statement. He is a consultant in psychiatry and a doctoral student at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet.
“This is why it is very important to continue studying this topic,” says Haglund.
Gjertsen agrees that mental illness is an important risk factor. In Norway, there are over 3600 inmates, and 95 per cent of them are male. For more than 20 years, mental health conditions in prisons have been a hot topic in Norway.
“People who are imprisoned often struggle with many of these problems,” he says.