Does a drunk suicidal person go to jail?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Does a drunk suicidal person go to jail?
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When the law, medicine, and mental health intersect.

Sometimes people have more than one problem.

What happens when someone has a medical problem, a psychiatric problem and they break the law? When something interacts with the law the law usually wins. How these cases at the intersection of disciplines are resolved depends on the laws in your jurisdiction. Most places in the United States have similar statutes often based on uniform law statutes. More and more places on earth are recognizing that mental illness is not a choice and that the mentally ill need special consideration in their encounters with the law. Here are some of the possible outcomes of a drunken suicidal person based on what happens here in my jurisdiction.

Partly this depends on the order in which things happen. Do they go to the hospital for a heart attack and then we discover they are drunk and suicidal? Or have they been arrested for driving under the influence first? What if they killed someone while drunk and now are thinking of killing themselves. All very different scenarios.

While I separate medical, psychiatric, and correction issues, some places may have facilities for several of these issues. Hospitals may have psychiatric units, in custody units, and so on.

Crisis issues should always get the first look.

If someone is having a heart attack or bleeding to death they need immediate medical attention. They go to the hospital. If medical problems show up while they are in jail or the psychiatric facility they should be transferred to a medical hospital unless where they are also offered that second service.

Alcohol is one of the most life-threatening of all the drugs from which to detox. People can and do die from alcohol withdrawal. If someone has ever had the Delirium tremens (DTs) they are at risk to die while sobering up. This needs to be supervised by a medical doctor.

If someone is suicidal they need psychiatric care.

We have a procedure here in California for placing someone on a psychiatric hold (technically a request for evaluation) and getting them sent for an evaluation. That first hold is only good for 72 hours. After that, a psychiatrist needs to say they need to stay or they get discharged. If they committed a crime they might get discharged from the psychiatric facility and still face legal charges.

Once at a psychiatric hospital and under the care of a psychiatrist, they will be evaluated and kept until the crisis resolved. The laws have lots of safeguards to keep people from putting other people they don’t like away and keeping them locked up for long periods of time.

Once upon a time – people stayed in psychiatric hospitals for a long time. Stays of several years or even forever commitments were common. Not anymore. Since the advent of effective medications, stays at psychiatric hospitals are getting shorter and shorter.

Stays of a week or less are now common. A long-term stay in the psychiatric facilities I have worked in would now run two weeks to a month.

Killing yourself or attempting to is illegal in most places, only the most rabid law and order types would even consider chasing someone down and arresting them because they had thought about suicide while drunk.

With the intoxicated person, they are likely to change their mind about suicide once they sober up. Studies show that people who are binge drinkers, when they drink they get drunk, are 55 times more likely to attempt suicide than people with no alcohol in their system.

So generally speaking a drunken suicidal person will not be sent to jail. If nothing else the jail does not want people killing themselves while in jail. Having clients die in your facility is bad for a business even if you run a jail or prison.

No jail for the drunken suicidal person – unless –

If the drunken person has committed a serious crime while intoxicated they are still held liable. Being drunken is not an excuse for bad or illegal behavior. Being mentally ill does not, and should not, get you a pass either.

You may not go to prison, but you will have consequences, like time in a hospital for the criminally insane, until we are sure you understand what you did and are capable of not doing that again.

Jails do have psychiatric units and they do have to put people who were arrested for serious crimes on a suicide watch from time to time. But no, most times, they have no interest in arresting and detaining someone who is suicidal.

For the record – people who are placed on a psychiatric hold are not under arrest. This does not result in a police record or mean you will have to say yes to having been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony on a job application. Your psychiatric treatment record is supposed to be confidential just like your medical treatment record. Do not let the fear of legal consequences stop you from calling for psychiatric help if someone is suicidal. Dead people do not worry about having a record.

One consequence of being in the psychiatric hospital will likely be a form you sign at discharge that tells you that you cannot buy or own a firearm for five years after being in a psychiatric hospital. If you want to get a gun, then you will need to appear before a judge and convince him you have a good reason to own one.

But if you are the sort of person who gets drunk and then thinks about killing yourself and others, you are not the kind of person that I would like running around my neighborhood with a weapon.

If someone is medically sick they need to be in a hospital, someone who is suicidal needs psychiatric care, and someone who breaks the law gets arrested. When someone has more than one of these issues we may have trouble figuring out what to do.

Hope that answers the question a reader sent in “Does a drunk suicidal person go to jail?” If you have more questions or comments on the issues of suicide, intoxication, and our society’s response to people with multiple problems please leave a comment.

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6 thoughts on “Does a drunk suicidal person go to jail?

  1. My relative tried suicide by cop. They have been in jail for five months. No prior history of misconduct. A wonderful person and all who knew her was shocked. She still contemplates suicide. They want to charge them for felonies. Locked up 22 hours a day has exacerbated the problem. Her attorney is court appointed. What can we do?!!


    • Talk with her attorney if possible. Try to get her a private Mental Health evaluation. With that in hand, she may be able to get treatment rather than prison time. She should be being seen by the Jail psychiatric services. Try to talk with them or ask her attorney to speak to them. Let’s hope she gets the treatment he needs.


  2. Hi. My stepdad’s girlfriend had been binge drinking for quite awhile, about 2 weeks, about 14 consecutive days, not to mention maybe a few days break between that and a couple years. She is also on probation and, what I’m told, is if she gets caught drinking again she is going straight to jail. However, she is now suicidal and my Stepdad refuses to call the police for help. He keeps saying that it is because she’s on probation, but I explained to him that when a person calls for help, that’s exactly what they will receive, whether or not she is on probation, has nothing to do with it. Therefore, she wouldn’t go to jail. He doesn’t believe what I’m saying to be true and just doesnt want to put her in jail, which I completely understand, but I know that suicidal is serious, as I lost my father to it, and so it shouldn’t be taken lightly. She will get the help she needs, but only if we call for help. Overall, I think the main concern is whether or not she would go to jail for being drink or the hospital for being suicidal. Also, if she is hospitalized, will she suffer the consequences if being intoxicated after being discharged from the hospital?

    PS. Considering this subject is time sensitive, I would greatly appreciate a prompt response, as I am ready to call 911 myself, but then again I’m not even sure if I can do that being in not related to her in any way. I also live in the state of Minnesota, if that helps any? Thank you so much for your time!


    • Binge drinking and being suicidal would both qualify as mental or emotional illnesses. By law (HIPAA) hospitals can’t disclosed protected health information. There is nothing illegal about being drunk. If I were in your shoes I would call 911. Unless the police get involved there is little chance she will have to go to jail. Even if she might go to jail, consider which is worse, going to jail or completing suicide and being dead?


  3. i tried to kill my self by over dosing, but it didn’t work and when I woke up in the hospital. I was still in a, what they call a drug induced psychosis and tried to leave. well, while trying to leave I guess two cops tried to stop me and I punched one in the face and tried to take the other ones gun to shoot my self. so they charged me with 3 class 2 felonies of 2 counts of assault on a peace officer and one count of disarming a peace officer. as a result they put me in jail with a 100,000 bond. I posted 10% and entered a treatment facility. my question is, do you think I should have been charged at all and since this is the first time I have ever been charged with a felony, do you think I will do prison time for this?
    personally, I feel sending a person to prison after they have been getting treatment will just undo all the help they have been getting. the courts version of psychiatric care is subpar at best. all they do is make the problem worse.
    thank you for listening. I hope I hear something to help me not stress about this situation as much.


    • You probably need to talk to an attorney who knows the laws and the judges in your area. By stoping you while you were under the influence the officers may have saved your life. They may have been thinking they needed to charge you to be able to keep you locked up and safe. If this was a suicide attempt and the hospital knew it most places would send you to a psychiatric hospital rather than a jail. Part of the process of recovery is to make things right that you have done in the past. If the treatment facility is one for drugs and alcohol that may affect the result. My thinking is that if the judge understands what happened you probably will not go to prison. You may need to do some probation and complete your treatment if you want to stay out. Talk to an attorney,do what you need to do to get well and the rest very well may work out better than you ever thought possible.


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