Risk Factors
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Suicide Prevention in Juvenile Facilities

Brent (1995) identified mental health disorder and substance abuse as the most important set of risk factors for adolescent suicide. Other risk factors include impulsive aggression, parental depression and substance abuse, family discord and abuse, and poor family support. Life stressors, specifically interpersonal conflict and loss and legal and disciplinary problems, were also associated with suicidal behavior in adolescents, particularly substance abusers. Many of these risk factors are prevalent in youth confined in juvenile facilities (Alessi et al., 1984; Rohde, Seeley, and Mace, 1997).

Although there are insufficient national data regarding the incidence of youth suicide in custody, information suggests a high prevalence of suicidal behavior in juvenile correctional facilities. According to a study funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, more than 11,000 juveniles engage in more than 17,000 incidents of suicidal behavior in juvenile facilities each year (Parent et al., 1994). In addition, the limited research on juvenile suicide in custody suggests that confined youth may be more vulnerable to suicidal behavior based on current or prior suicidal ideation (i.e., thoughts and/or ideas of hurting or killing oneself). For example, one study found that incarcerated youth with either major affective disorders or borderline personality disorders had a higher degree of suicidal ideation and more suicide attempts than comparable adolescents in the general population (Alessi et al., 1984).


Policies to provide close observation of suicidal residents did not appear to significantly reduce suicidal behavior.

Other studies found that a high percentage of detained youth reported a history of suicide attempts (Dembo et al., 1990) and psychiatric hospitalization (Waite, 1992) and current and active suicidal behavior (Davis et al., 1991). Two recent studies of youth confined in a juvenile detention facility found that suicidal behavior in males was associated with depression and decreased social connection, while suicidal behavior in females was associated with impulsivity and instability (Mace, Rohde, and Gnau, 1997; Rhode, Seely, and Mace, 1997). Finally, other researchers found high rates of suicidal behavior (Duclos, LeBeau, and Elias, 1994) and psychiatric disorders (Duclos et al., 1998) among American Indian youth confined in juvenile facilities.


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