Self-mutilation and suicide attempt: distinguishing features in prisoners

C Fulwiler, C Forbes, S L Santangelo, M Folstein
Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 1997, 25 (1): 69-77
Nonlethal forms of self-injury are often discussed together with suicide attempts as though they belonged on a continuum of self-harm. Both types of self-injury are common in prisons, which have a predominantly male population; however, most studies of nonlethal self-injury have been done with female subjects. This exploratory study tested the hypothesis that prisoners who injured themselves without intending to die would differ clinically from prisoners who had attempted suicide. Inmates admitted to the prison unit of a public hospital for treatment of self-inflicted wounds or who had a history of previous self-injury were administered a standardized intake protocol by the first author, which included asking about their intent at the time they injured themselves. Patients were classified as self-mutilators or suicide attempters on the basis of intent. Fifteen patients reported that they had attempted to take their own lives, while 16 reported other reasons for harming themselves. Suicide attempt was associated with adult affective disorder 13/15 versus 2/16 mutilators); self-mutilation with a history of childhood hyperactivity (12/16 versus 1/15 suicide attempters) and a mixed dysthymia/anxiety syndrome that began in childhood or early adolescence (9/16). Prison self-mutilators and suicide attempters had very different clinical presentations and histories. The history of childhood hyperactivity in self-mutilators deserves further study in both correctional and noncorrectional populations.

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