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Research Interviews on Suicide Attempts Do Not Cause Undue Distress in Prisoners

A. Rivlin, L. Marzano, K. Hawton, and S. Fazel. Impact on prisoners of participating in research interviews related to near-lethal suicide attempts. Journal of Affective Disorders, 136(1-2):54-62, 2012.

By Lori Whitten, Staff Writer, RTI International, Rockville, MD

 Prisoners who survive near-fatal suicide attempts do not usually suffer unduly from participating in research intervieThis photograph shows a worried looking older man looking up at another person whose face is not about suicidal behavior and contributory factors, according to a recent study. In fact, many prisoners said they found such interviews beneficial and welcomed the opportunity to talk about themselves.

Keith Hawton, D.Sc., M.B., and colleagues at the University of Oxford conducted detailed, in-person interviews with 120 prisoners who made near-lethal suicide attempts and 120 prisoners in a comparison group who had never attempted suicide. The researchers’ questions touched on a wide array of personal topics, including sociodemographic information, criminal and medical histories, social support and networks, life events and childhood trauma, psychological characteristics, psychiatric problems, and self-harm and suicidal process. For males in both groups, average self-reported mood levels improved significantly from the beginning to the end of the interviews—a pattern shared by females in the comparison group. Females who had attempted suicide, however, reported no negative effect of the interviews on their mood.

Some prisoners did find it upsetting to remember and talk about their suicide attempts, and others said it was difficult to discuss sensitive personal issues (e.g., sexual or physical abuse, drug addiction, or the death or loss of children). In general, participants in the comparison group generally found the interviews easier to participate in than those who had attempted suicide. However, all but eight of the participants (seven people who had attempted suicide and one who had not) said they were pleased to have participated. Qualitative data suggests that both male and female prisoners who reported favorable views of participation liked the chance to talk about themselves and their problems to someone whom they would not encounter again in the corrections system. Prisoners who had attempted suicide often expressed positive attitudes about the opportunity to talk about the circumstances leading up to their suicide attempt, and many described the interviews as cathartic.

Despite concerns that vulnerable groups, including prisoners, may be harmed by participation in research about sensitive topics, little is known about the actual effects—negative or positive. Hawton and colleagues cautiously conclude that, given the appropriate protocols and safeguards, participation in research on personal suicidal behavior is not usually distressing for prisoners. Some prisoners may find such participation beneficial, and future research might identify characteristics to differentiate those individuals from others who would find it distressing.

Prisoners’ high risk of suicide requires thorough and sensitive research. Those who have survived suicide attempts may provide important perspectives that can inform prevention efforts, and their reactions to participating in research studies offer valuable feedback to researchers and ethics committees.

For more information, contact Dr. Keith Hawton at the Centre for Suicide Research, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford in Oxford, United Kingdom

Posted Mon, Jul 16 2012 12:51 PM by Tracey Vessels


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