In the blog posts, Former FBI Agent Discusses Suicide Prevention and Can People Find Meaning and Purpose in Prison?, we began a conversation regarding the mental health struggles of criminal defendants, which sometimes include thoughts of suicide. 

I shared one of the most profound truths about my mental health struggles during my criminal case. I felt such shame and humiliation that I felt desperate to end the pain. I lied to the FBI because I convinced myself that they would drop the case if the FBI believed my lies, and my pain and suffering would go away.

In other words, it was not that I entertained suicide thoughts because I did not want to live but that in some of the most difficult moments, I just wanted to end the pain.

Paul Bertrand, a former FBI agent who handled my case, spent many years in charge of mental health support for the FBI. His role included suicide intervention and suicide prevention training. 

Paul is very familiar with the plight of criminal defendants once they find out they are targets of a criminal investigation or have been indicted. He has seen the struggle first hand and, in some cases, has even helped defendants deal with thoughts of suicide and turn towards thoughts of carrying forward.

As I shared in my recent discussion with Paul, I foolishly thought that lying and denying might help the pain of my criminal case go away. The thought of facing my actions and going to prison was too hard to bear, so that was not an option, I thought. So I continued to lie to the FBI. As I have said before, lying only worsened everything, prolonging the pain and struggle.  

As an FBI agent, Paul was looking for the opposite. When he sat down with me (or anyone in that position), he already had the goods against me. He knew I was lying. Watching targets lie so brazenly to the FBI often made him sad. He knew they were only digging a deeper hole that would be harder for them to deal with later on.

Paul’s message is that people can recover emotionally and mentally after the strain of a criminal prosecution, but that well-being they seek takes work. There is no magic wand to make the inevitable pain of a criminal prosecution disappear. Despite their desperation to end the misery and pain, Paul’s advice is to accept responsibility for what they’ve done so they can begin to change their lives. 

What is not helpful is isolating or hiding during the struggle. To get to well-being and eventually thrive, people have to put in the work. It may be hard for criminal defendants to hear, but it is the truth.

Fundamentally, there are three steps for a criminal defendant to take to end the pain and mental health burden associated with a criminal case: 

  • First, deal with the criminal case as promptly and responsibly as possible; only then can the misery of the case begin to subside. The defendant gains certainty over the outcome, understands the magnitude of the task ahead, and can take positive steps forward.
  • Second, address the mental health struggle by getting appropriate help. Some people may need help with substance abuse, for example, or talk therapy. People have to accept they need help and reach out. That is the only way to keep their emotional and mental health misery from spinning out of control. 
  • Third, people can start to add well-being measures, doing things that provide them with new meaning and purpose. This can include positive relationships, healthy habits, getting new skills for the future, volunteering, AA meetings, etc.

    Can People Find Meaning and Purpose In Federal Prison?

There is no way around these steps to get well, Paul shares. Until a person starts to accept their responsibility, the misery and excruciating pain they feel during the criminal process will likely remain.

Have you ever heard someone say they experienced significant relief when they got arrested? They point to the fact that they welcomed the end of running from the law, keeping secrets, carrying a double life, being full of anxiety, and dealing with other aspects of a criminal lifestyle. For many criminal defendants, maybe most, accepting responsibility can bring a much-needed opportunity to exhale and reset. 

The good news is that there is a long road generally between suicidal ideation and taking action. According to experts, most people do not just move from suicide ideation directly to action. These thoughts may be common during a criminal prosecution, but most people don’t get to the point of acting on them. (Of course, even one person acting on it is too many.) 

A final word of caution:

During stressful times like a painful criminal prosecution, many people turn to drugs and alcohol. Some experts, including the CDC, warn about the role of drinking, drugs, and gun ownership in promoting suicide. 

Paul sees drinking, drugs, and guns as factors that can make it easier for people to act on suicidal thoughts. People’s inhibitions are lower under the influence. This is a highly individual issue, and people need to seek advice from friends and family, advisors, therapists, clergy, and others who can help them handle their individual situations. Our goal is to increase awareness about the struggle, but we are not dispensing legal, medical, or other professional advice. 

Conclusion

Our work is to raise awareness. People need to know about the mental health struggles criminal defendants face, leading some people to consider suicide. Moreover, as a community, we need to offer our help and support. 

Our best advice is to seek help if you are a criminal defendant experiencing mental health struggles. If you know a person struggling with a criminal case, offer help and learn the signs that they may be experiencing thoughts of suicide. Raising awareness will help criminal defendants and their loved ones get help before it’s too late. 

 

If you have thought about suicide, please know you are not alone and options do exist. To start, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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Justin Paperny