Incarcerated individuals at greater risk for suicide; DOCR says staff works to intervene
BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR)— In the United States, the number of suicides in state prisons increased 85% between 2001 and 2019 as reported by the National Institute of Corrections. The numbers also show that rates of inmate suicides are higher than averages in the general population.
North Dakota Department of Corrections staff say the issue of suicide is nuanced and is difficult to compare and contrast responses across states, but they say the state performs well with interventions.
Within corrections centers like the ND State Penitentiary, staff keep tabs on residents who may be at risk.
“At the end of the day, just in a very base sense, the biggest obstacle to whether or not we can prevent or intervene on a suicide attempt is whether or not the residents are willing to come forward and talk to us about their ideation. And there’s a lot of reasons why that may not happen, or people may not be comfortable with that,” said Dr. Amy Veith, DOCR Clinical Director.
Veith and Fr. Mark Aune, a priest in the Diocese in Bismarck who works in the State Penitentiary and MRCC each Tuesday and helps those in prison through faith, say staff are trained to intervene.
“The most important thing is just listening. They really want to feel like you’re actively listening to them, that you care,” said Aune.
He says he often sees residents who suffer with depression and anxiety.
Veith says residents are more at risk for suicide at certain times— like when they are new to the system, in isolation, or receive bad news. Populations at risk outside prison, like LGBTQ+ communities, are also at greater risk in prison. Plus, incarcerated men live within a system of rigid masculinity and distrust of authority figures. That also may discourage them from asking for help.
“Just by the nature of what prison is, they get plucked out of these environments, these social systems that they’ve been a part of for their whole lives prior to that, and they are placed in an area where they may not know anyone. The rules are different. The structure is different. And so, that isolation from family and social support is actually a risk factor for suicide,” said Veith.
The prison offers group treatment, a specialized unit for those with serious mental illnesses, and trains staff to provide trauma-informed care.
“It’s very expensive to incarcerate anyone. And what we want to do is help them to become the best person they can become in these walls. Because when they return back to society, they are going to be amongst us. We want them to be happy, productive members of society,” said Aune.
Veith says anecdotally, the DOCR has seen an increase in residents seeking mental health treatment, likely in part due to stressors from the pandemic and work done to de-stigmatize mental health issues.
She says maintaining connections with loved ones behind bars can reduce suicide attempts.
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