Suicide in adolescents exposed to the youth justice system: A 22-year retrospective data linkage study

Dr Rohan Borschmann1, Ms. Holly Tibble2, A/Prof. Matthew Spittal1, Mr.  Alexander Love1, Prof. Stuart Kinner3

1University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia, 2University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, 3Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia

Background: We aimed to estimate the suicide rate in a large cohort of young people exposed to the youth justice system (YJS) in Australia, and to identify the demographic / criminogenic risk factors associated with these deaths.

Methods: Data relating to all young people who had any contact with the YJS in Queensland between January 1993 and December 2014 (N=49,228) were linked to Australia’s National Death Index. We calculated the incidence rate of suicide within the cohort, stratified by sex and Indigenous status. Poisson regression was used to assess the change in suicide rates over time. Crude mortality rates (CMRs) were calculated for all-suicide and method-specific suicides, both overall and within subgroups.

Results: Of the 48,228 participants, 1452 (3%) died during the follow-up period. For 31% (458) of decedents, the cause of death was suicide. The proportion of deaths due to suicide was highest for Indigenous females (37.9% of all deaths), followed by Indigenous males (36.8%), non-Indigenous males (30.1%) and non-Indigenous females (25.8%). Hanging was the most common method of suicide (83%).

Conclusion: The disproportionately high incidence of suicide deaths following contact with the YJS represents a considerable cause for concern. There is a pressing need to better understand the trajectories of young people after discharge from the YJS, possibly through the use of linked administrative health and social care data. This missing epidemiological knowledge would inform targeted, preventive interventions to be implemented during the window of opportunity when these vulnerable young people are under the care of the YJS.


Dr. Rohan Borschmann is a senior research fellow and psychologist in the Justice Health Unit in the Centre for Health Equity, University of Melbourne. A former prison psychologist, Rohan’s research focuses on the mental health of adolescents and marginalised young people in Australia, with particular expertise in self-harm and substance use during adolescence. In addition to his research activities, Rohan is a practising psychologist two nights a week, and sits on the Board of Directors for the Australian Association for Adolescent Health.