Suicide is 20 times more common in female prisoners than in the general female population, a new study has revealed.
But Irish prisoners may be at less risk of suicide than their counterparts in the UK because of different procedures and standards in Irish jails.
The research, published in the latest issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, also revealed that the suicide rate for female prisoners has increased over the past 25 years, with younger prisoners at greater risk of taking their own lives than older inmates.
Psychiatrists from the University of Oxford and Derby City Hospital in the UK found that 83 suicides took place among female prisoners in England and Wales between 1978 and 2004. When compared with the suicide rate for the general female population of similar ages, female prisoners of all ages were 20 times more likely to take their own lives than other women.
Commenting on the figures, Professor Harry Kennedy, Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director of the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum, said that both male and female prisoners were at a high risk of suicide and this risk actually increases soon after release from prison.
However, he added that suicide among the Irish female prison population was very rare and the numbers of female prisoners are so small that any statistics would be unreliable. In contrast, he pointed out that the English study involved much larger numbers over a long period of time (1978 to 2004).
Interestingly, Prof Kennedy said that the overall suicide rate has fallen in Irish prisons and this can be associated in part with the fact that benzodiazepines are no longer prescribed in prisons here.
“Our impression is that suicide rate has fallen a lot in Irish prisons. The reason it has fallen has been through not prescribing benzodiazepines in prison... benzodiazepines lead to withdrawal symptoms, they lead to affective instability [and] they appear to be associated with deliberate self-harm. We think the most likely cause for the fall in suicide rates in prison is that some years ago, we stopped prescribing benzodiazepines in prison,” he explained.