Suicide and Pepper Spray
Jack was a 23-year-old Caucasian
male, arrested for the second time in two months on drug charges. He was booked
in and cleared by the nurse before being transported to his cell. When he arrived
he was not sad, not withdrawn, not intoxicated, and gave no indication that he
was contemplating suicide. Rather, he was angry, belligerent, and oppositional/defiant.
Correctional officers were unsympathetic, intolerant, and harsh. The stress of
incarceration manifested also in a severe outbreak of a skin rash on his entire
body. Medical response to this painful and irritating condition was equally unsympathetic
and unhelpful. Two weeks after his arrival he attempted to dive over the second
floor railing onto the concrete below. He was caught just as he jumped by a couple
of inmates who had been walking by. The correctional officers pepper sprayed him
and aggressively cuffed him before literally dragging him to the medical unit.
Once in Medical he was stripped, given a paper gown, and placed in an observational
cell. The prevailing attitude was one of ridicule and intolerance; the opinion
of the majority being that Jack was playing a game and any act of kindness or
compassion would 'reinforce' his unacceptable behavior.
was a 28-year-old Caucasian male, arrested for assault charges. He had a history
of substance abuse, a previous suicide attempt, and was now involved in a bitter
divorce. When booked in he denied any suicidal ideations, was calm, yet defiant
and irritable. Failing to procure a bond after nine days in jail he attempted
to hang himself and was found in time, again, by other inmates. Like Jack, he
was pepper sprayed as he attempted to fight the correctional officers from transporting
him to medical, and subsequently stripped and placed in an observational cell.
Again, no compassion could be found for this young man.
Jack and Greg were not the exception to the rule. This
was the standard. Men simply presented differently when they were contemplating
suicide. While women tended to be more unmistakably distraught and routinely treated
with compassion, men often presented with behaviors that discouraged concern and
elicited harsh judgment and treatment. In addition, the means by which men will
attempt suicide (e.g., hanging) are more readily available in jail whereas instruments
for cutting or overdosing (i.e., that which is more typical of women) are typically
Understanding and Observation
When I became the Director of Mental Health, these types of scenarios were occurring
far too frequently. One of the interesting factors that quickly became apparent
was that the first responders were often the other inmates. After numerous interviews
I realized that proximity was not the explanation; rather, understanding and observation
was. In other words, there was clearly an unspoken rule against approaching another
inmate to see how he's "feeling" because of correctly interpreting aggressive
behavior as a defense against deeper fears. Thankfully, most often I would receive
word from one inmate, based on his observations that a fellow inmate was not coping
This ability to cope became an effective way to
gauge the likelihood of a suicide attempt. It appeared that regardless of the
number of "risk factors" a man had stacked against him, if he was able
to cope with confinement he did well. Alternately, if confinement became intolerable
then surely death, in his mind, was the lesser of two evils.
Obviously, I would not be able to observe each and every
inmate in this large county jail; nor could I rely on the other inmates to be
consistent in their disclosures. Therefore, I knew the only way to reverse this
trend would be through training. I knew the amount of time I had to impact the
caretakers of these men was relatively limited. Therefore, I focused on instilling
empathy, teaching about transference, teaching about compassion, and discussing
the effects of confinement relative to one's ability to cope with such. The training
was successful and correctional officers and nursing staff readily referred those
men who exhibited these atypical signs of suicidal risk. Suicidal attempts decreased
Relatively speaking, these scenarios are probably
less conspicuous in the general population. However, this does not cancel out
the ability to generalize. On the contrary, a jail setting provides an intensified
version of the complex dynamics that occur in every day 'freedom'. After leaving
that position I moved on to work with men who batter their families who were NOT
in jail. What I had learned about men and depression from the inmates proved to
be indispensable in the general population, and particularly in this population
of violent offenders who were being in essence confined. That is, the typical
strategy of utilizing power and control in order to cope with underlying fear,
hurt, humiliation, etc.
was no longer an option and again, assessing the
ability to cope with this "confinement" proved to be the best predictor
of suicidal ideations.
Once a client was assessed through
observations in interviews or group to be a risk for suicide I would schedule
an individual session. Of course direct confrontation of their acting out behavior
and the implications was met with steadfast denial of any depression or suicidal
ideations. However, when I would begin with a compassionate discussion regarding
the differences between men and women relative to depression, followed by an interpretation
of his behavior as indicative of a sadness that comes with loss, I would often
encounter a cathartic release of emotions that took safety and courage from the
client to accomplish.
Reframing Their Child
Over time I have found that the most effective means of guiding my male clients
away from that ledge of self-annihilation is to address the child who was denied
the freedom of expressing, of possessing, the full range of emotions. I have found
that by helping them to reframe those earlier experiences and to teach them that
hurt and fear are no better or worse than joy and courage they become more open,
more aware, and more alive.
However, I am also painfully aware
that for those who have decided to take their own lives, for reasons that go beyond
depression and hopelessness, no words or actions can prevent the completion of
this goal. Paul was such a soul. Twenty-four years of age, he was bright, handsome,
giving, kind, likeable, lovable, talented and a host of other character strengths.
Unfortunately, he also had been given an utterly horrific legacy of witnessing
his own father's suicide five years previous. During the last six months of treatment
he had grown and become stronger. He was well aware of the risk factor given his
fathers' actions yet determined that he would never succumb to such a fate. He
had friends, was in love, was close to his family, and involved in his church.
Yet as he walked out the door after the last session there was something imperceptible
that told me what was to come nearly a year later.
to time he would call just to check in and give an update on his life. He didn't
want an appointment and he continued to deny any suicidal ideations. The Friday
before the fifth anniversary of his fathers' suicide he called again. I tried
to get him to come in for an appointment and we talked at length about the anniversary
date coming up. He reported an increase in drinking behavior, sounded more irritable,
almost angry, yet continued to deny any suicidal intent. He had alienated most
of his friends and family and had long broken up with his girlfriend. The joy
once heard in his voice was gone. Before ending the phone call, he softened enough
to thank me for my help and encouragement and said that he would stop by the following
week just to say hi.
Two days later I received a phone call
from the person who had referred him initially for counseling. He had repeated
his father's actions at the exact same time, on the exact same day, in the exact
same manner - a gunshot to the chest.
from the Unspoken Rules Mandating Secrecy
I realize that no one could
have prevented this young man from completing his goal. I believe that for a time
he truly experienced a sense of wholeness and freedom from the actions of his
father. Yet it is clear that at some point those memories, hurts, and other emotions
placed him in an intolerable predicament; He was confined to the constant memory.
Perhaps techniques such as EMDR or more intensive psychodynamic treatment could
have forestalled this act; perhaps not. It is my hope that the more aware those
in the helping professions become regarding the unique dynamics of men and suicide,
the more lives we can save. My hope is that as a culture we can move away from
the unspoken rules mandating secrecy and denial for men who are depressed and
move toward giving our sons, husbands, and fathers' permission to be fully human.
- Danielle Balletto, LPC, LBP A licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a licensed
behavioral practitioner (LBP) in the State of Oklahoma. A graduate of The University
of Tulsa. Graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors' in 1996 and graduated with
a Masters' in Clinical Psychology in 1998. Batterer's counselor working with offenders
and severely mentally ill for eleven years. Currently working on a Doctorate in
Criminal Justice through Capella University.
Reflection Exercise Explanation
Goal of this Home Study Course is to create a learning experience that enhances
your clinical skills. We encourage you to discuss the Personal Reflection
Journaling Activities, found at the end of each Section, with your colleagues.
Thus, you are provided with an opportunity for a Group Discussion experience.
Case Study examples might include: family background, socio-economic status, education,
occupation, social/emotional issues, legal/financial issues, death/dying/health,
home management, parenting, etc. as you deem appropriate. A Case Study is to be
approximately 250 words in length. However, since the content of these Personal
Reflection Journaling Exercises is intended for your future reference, they
may contain confidential information and are to be applied as a work in
progress. You will not
be required to provide us with these Journaling Activities.
Reflection Exercise #1
The preceding section contained information
about male depression and suicide. Write three case study examples regarding how
you might use the content of this section in your practice.
Online Continuing Education QUESTION
According to Balletto, what is the most effective means of guiding
male clients away from the ledge of self-annihilation? Record the letter of the
correct answer the .