Suicide Prevention in Juvenile Facilities

Nelson's death is one of an undetermined number of suicides that occur each year in public and private juvenile facilities throughout the Nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate of adolescents ages 15 to 19 has quadrupled from 2.7 suicides per 100,000 in 1950 to 11 suicides per 100,000 in 1994 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1995). CDC also reported that more teenagers died of suicide during 1994 than of cancer, heart disease, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia and influenza, and chronic lung disease combined.

Several national studies have examined the extent and nature of suicide in jail and prison facilities (Hayes, 1989, 1995), but there has been little comparable national research regarding juvenile suicide in secure detention or confinement. The only national survey of juvenile suicides in secure custody (Flaherty, 1980) reflected a problematic calculation of suicide rates. Reanalysis of suicide rates in that study found that youth suicide in juvenile detention and correctional facilities was more than four times greater than youth suicide in the general population (Memory, 1989). Accurate data on the total scope and rate of juvenile suicide in custody are still lacking.

The U.S. Bureau of the Census has been collecting data on the number of deaths of juveniles in custody since 1989. In the first year of the survey, juvenile officials self-reported 17 suicides in public detention centers, reception and diagnostic centers, and training schools during 1988 (Krisberg et al., 1991). Fourteen such suicides were reported during 1993 (Austin et al., 1995). Given the epidemiological data regarding adolescent suicide, coupled with the increased risk factors associated with detained and confined youth, the reported number of suicides in custody appears low. The National Center for Health Statistics, however, reported that 30,903 persons committed suicide in the United States in 1996. Of these, approximately 7 percent (2,119) were youth age 19 or younger. For youth younger than age 15, suicides increased 113 percent between 1980 and 1996 (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999). Because of statistics like these, many juvenile justice experts and practitioners believe that suicides are underreported. To date, no comprehensive study of deaths in custody has been undertaken.

Suicide in juvenile detention and correctional facilities was more than four times greater than youth suicide overall.

Juvenile Justice - Youth With Mental Health Disorders:
Issues and Emerging Responses
April 2000,
Volume VII · Number 1