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  • Megan Chesin Ph.D.

Victims of Intimate Partner Violence and Suicidal Behavior

Who’s at risk and why.

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  • In the United States, 40 to 50 percent of adults report lifetime sexual and physical IPV victimization.

  • Suicide risk is high for IPV victims, relative to the U.S. adult population.

  • Mental health, substance abuse, and/or barriers to help-seeking may explain suicide risk among IPV victims.


Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a significant issue in the United States: Fifty percent of women and more than 40 percent of men have experienced contact sexual or physical violence or psychological victimization by an intimate partner in their lifetime (Leemis et al., 2022). Members of the LGBTQIA+ community are at particular risk for IPV, compared to their heterosexual counterparts (Harland et al., 2021). Transgender individuals are found to have an almost two times greater risk of IPV victimization than cisgender individuals (Peitzmeier et al., 2020). IPV begins in late adolescence and reaches its peak in emerging adulthood (i.e., ages 18-29 years; Arnett, 2018; Leemis, 2022).


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In 2021, there were 48,183 deaths by suicide in the United States. In provisional 2022 data, an approximately 3 percent increase in suicide deaths is reported (CDC, 2023). IPV victimization is associated with an increased risk of fatality, including suicide death. Women and LGBTQIA+ IPV victims are at greater risk of suicide death and behavior than male and heterosexual or cisgender IPV victims (Cavanaugh et al., 2011; Kafka et al., 2022; McManus et al., 2022). Younger age is also associated with death by suicide among IPV victims, which is of concern considering that IPV peaks in emerging adulthood (Leemis, 2022).


What accounts for the relationship between suicidal behavior and IPV?

Mental Health Correlates of IPV and Suicide


IPV victimization is associated with an increased risk of depressive, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress symptoms in both men and women (Spencer et al., 2019). Women are more symptomatic than men (Spencer et al., 2019; Caldwell et al., 2012). Depressive and posttraumatic stress symptom severity may depend on the type of IPV victimization; for example, physical and sexual IPV victimization are associated with more severe depressive symptoms than psychological IPV victimization (Chesin et al., in submission).


IPV survivors also have high rates of substance misuse, with 50 percent of women and 10 percent of men who enter substance use disorder (SUD) treatment reporting a history of IPV victimization (Cafferky et al., 2018; Schneider et al., 2009). SUD itself is associated with a significant risk for suicide death, particularly for women (Lynch et al., 2022).


Given increased suicide risk with SUD, depressive, and/or posttraumatic stress symptoms (Dore et al., 2012; Østergaard et al., 2017), those IPV victims with comorbid mental health and SUD symptoms may be at particular suicide risk. In general, it may be that the relationships between IPV and suicide behavior are at least in part explained by SUD and/or mental health difficulties.


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Barriers to Help-Seeking Among IPV Victims


Many IPV victims face difficulties with help-seeking; there are many theories as to why this is. Likely, it is a result of a constellation of factors that include the following:


  • Psychological factors, such as learned helplessness, fear and shame, attachment to the perpetrator, and substance use and/or mental health difficulties subsequent to IPV victimization.

  • Limited awareness and access to services, particularly among those who are financially dependent on the perpetrator or have limited material resources.

  • Concerns about systemic issues, including historical failings of the justice system (e.g., not believing IPV victims, inadequate responses to reports).

  • Cultural proscriptions against help-seeking and lack of culturally sensitive resources (e.g., native language services).

Additional psychosocial factors may impede treatment engagement by male IPV victims and include internalized concepts of masculinity and internalized stigma associated with IPV victimization and help-seeking for it, as well as services that are predominantly designed for females (Cho et al., 2020; Hien & Ruglass, 2009; Robinson et al., 2020).


Moving Forward

More research on who among IPV victims is at particular suicide risk as well as research that explores risk factors in specific groups (e.g., psychological vs sexual or physical IPV victims) is needed. Further, studies exploring correlates for minority groups with known increased suicide risk, such as LGBTQIA+ IPV victims (Narang et al., 2018), are needed to better mitigate risk among vulnerable group members.


Targeted suicide screening measures are needed, particularly when working with high suicide-risk IPV victims (e.g., emerging adults, women, LGBTQIA+ persons). Culturally relevant intervention programs are needed for IPV victims at suicide risk who are identified. Increased continuing education for mental health providers as it pertains to IPV and suicide can only aid in these efforts.


If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Houston Partner Violence and Suicidal Behavior Therapy Appointment

Kait Gilleran, M.A., is currently a graduate student in the Psy.D. Program at William Paterson University. Their interests and experience include risk assessment and providing psychosocial interventions to adults with serious and persistent mental illness.


Megan Chesin, Ph.D., - Website -



References


For further reading: Chesin, M. S., Cascardi, M., & Gilleran, K. (under review). Associations between PTSD and depressive symptoms and victimization type among U.S. female college students: A latent class analysis.


Additional Resources


National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233


Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: 1-800-656-4673

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