Two women a week are killed by partners or ex-partners every week in the UK. As a campaigner against violence against women and former probation officer, that figure is etched in my mind.
What is less well known is the horrific link between domestic abuse and suicide. Research in this area is somewhat lacking, but the Transforming Health and Social Care in Kent and Medway partnership conducted a study which concluded that almost one in five of the people who died by suicide in the county in 2020 had been impacted by domestic abuse. This included current victims and those who had historically experienced abuse, perpetrators and young people living in households where abuse was occurring. A 2018 study by the University of Warwick, focusing on more than 3,500 women supported by domestic abuse charity Refuge, found that almost a quarter of women supported by the charity had felt suicidal at one time or another. Some 83 per cent reported feelings of hopelessness and despair which are key symptoms of suicidal ideation. The research also found that nearly a fifth of participants had actively planned to take their own lives.
In many respects the risk of suicide for a victim of domestic abuse is not surprising when we consider the very character of domestic abuse. Perpetrators commonly undermine their victim’s mental wellbeing, confidence and self-esteem and isolate them from others. Other common tactics that have an impact on mental health include forms of emotional abuse, especially gaslighting. Those who do manage to leave domestic abuse behind can struggle in their recovery because loss of agency is another classic experience of those who have been coercively controlled and trauma can shut down victims’ self-belief.
Women who have been abused by a partner are three times more likely to suffer depression, anxiety or severe conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder than other women, according to research by Birmingham University. Women with mental health problems are also more likely to be domestically abused, with 30 to 60 per cent of women with a mental health problem having experienced domestic violence.
For the last few months I have been working with Kirsty Robinson, a woman from my area whose sister, Gemma, took her own life after suffering a fractured eye socket in a vicious assault from her ex-partner and being frightened of seeing him in court. Kirsty and I have been seeking to shine a light on the scale of the problem. We believe that changes in focus and policy are needed by health and justice agencies and the police to tackle what we see as a health crisis caused by domestic abuse.
Although attributing suicide to someone else’s actions is difficult there is a precedent in the law: in 2017 Nicholas Allen pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of his ex-girlfriend, Justene Reece, after she killed herself as a ‘direct result’ of his controlling behaviour. This is thought to be the first manslaughter case brought in such circumstances. Allen had previous convictions for assault and harassment against other partners, was also convicted of ‘controlling and coercive behaviour’ and of six counts of stalking Justene and her family. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
Possibly other convictions of this type could follow – but of course evidence is required. When a homicide takes place the crime scene and the victim’s circumstances are fully investigated by senior police officers. But it is not clear that police investigate suicides as fully once it is clear that it is a self-inflicted death. We believe that checks for a domestic abuse history should always be made and a system of recording this needs to be set up. Where there is a history of abuse, a proper inquiry should be carried out.
We also believe that more focus needs to be placed upon the suicide risk of those in, and who have left, domestically abusive relationships and that all frontline practitioners in the field should have more training in this area: health practitioners who see women with mental health problems need to ask routinely about domestic violence and abuse and how to safely respond. Similarly, police officers, probation officers and those working with victims must be trained on how to approach this. We also need to lay the foundations for greater collaboration between the mental health and domestic abuse sectors in the hope we can see prevention of further tragedy.
Finally, victims of domestic abuse need mental health support from highly trained practitioners to deal with the deep trauma that they have experienced. A recent report from the Agenda Alliance found trauma-informed mental health services in the UK for women are rare. This must change. We need to address the link between suicide and domestic abuse and suicide to save lives.
Image credit: Unsplash/Danny Lines