Suicide is 20 times more common in female
prisoners than in the general female population, according to new
research, published in the February issue of the British
Journal of Psychiatry, also shows that the suicide rate for
female prisoners has steadily increased over the last 25 years. And
younger prisoners are at greater risk of killing themselves than
Psychiatrists Dr Seena Fazel, from the
University of Oxford , and Dr Ram Benning, from Derby City Hospital
, studied suicides in female prisoners between 1978 and 2004.
Eight-three suicides were recorded in total.
The suicide rate for all female prisoners
compared with the general female population of similar ages (also
known as the standardised mortality ratio or SMR) was 20.7. In
other words, female prisoners of all ages were about 20 times more
likely to kill themselves than other women. This trend has been
steadily increasing over the last 25 years. When the researchers
examined the suicide rates by age group, they found that suicide
was far more common in younger inmates than older ones. Female
prisoners under the age of 25 had an SMR for suicide of 40,
compared with 20 for prisoners over the age of 25. This suggests
that younger female prisoners are a particularly high-risk group
In 2005, Dr Fazel and colleagues examined the
suicide rate in male prisoners, and found that suicide was five
times more common in male prisoners than in the general population.
This new study therefore points to a clear ‘gender gap’ in suicide
for male and female prisoners.
Dr Fazel and Benning put forward a number of
explanations for this gender gap. For example, women entering
prison may already be at a higher risk of suicide because they have
existing mental health problems, such as depression, a history of
self-harm, or a drug or alcohol addiction. The prison environment
may also affect women differently to men.
Writing in the February issue of the
British Journal of Psychiatry, they said: “One possible
explanation for higher SMR for suicide in female prisoners is that
females entering prison may have higher prevalences of risk factors
associated with suicide, such as depression, previous self-harm and
history of physical and sexual abuse. Substance misuse is a risk
factor for prison suicides, and a systematic review has shown that
the relative excess misuse in prisoners compared with the general
population is higher for female inmates. Another explanation is
that prison may specifically increase the vulnerability of females
The researchers say the reasons for the
increasing suicide rate in female prisoners over the last 25 years
are ‘complex’. However, a likely explanation is that more women are
now being convicted for drug-related offences, meaning greater
numbers of women are entering prison with drug problems.
The researchers say their latest findings
support the need for national initiatives to help prevent suicide
For further information, please
McLoughlin in the Communications Department.
Telephone: 0203 701 2544 or 07738 349070
Fazel S and Benning R (2009) Suicides in female prisoners in England and Wales, 1978-2004, British Journal of Psychiatry, 194: 183-184