April 11, 2022

Intimate partner violence is a precursor to 6.1% of all suicides, according to a new study led by researchers at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC).

Most available research on intimate partner violence (IPV) and suicide focuses on homicide-suicides, which is when an individual kills another person before taking their own life. This study has broadened understanding by including information about the role of IPV in single suicides, which is when a suicide is not connected to other violent deaths. Single suicides are the most common type of fatal violence in the United States.

Julie Kafka

Julie Kafka

Dr. Beth Moracco

Dr. Beth Moracco

The study, published in Social Science and Medicine – Population Health, was led by Julie Kafka, doctoral student in the Department of Health Behavior and fellow at IPRC, along with health behavior researchers Beth Moracco, PhD, associate professor and director of IPRC, Caroline Taheri, Master of Public Health student, and Belinda-Rose Young, doctoral student and associate director of research and translation and IVP fellow at IPRC.

The study team examined 2010-2017 data from the North Carolina Violent Death Reporting System (NC-VDRS). NC-VDRS includes text narratives about the circumstances known about each violent death that occurs in the state, such as mental health challenges or past suicide attempts, using information compiled from the coroner or medical examiner, law enforcement and death certificate records. The study authors coded and qualitatively reviewed a sample of death narratives for single suicides to explore how often IPV was mentioned as a key circumstance leading up to the death.

Findings suggest that IPV may be a precipitating factor for 6.1% of all suicides in N.C. (including both homicide-suicides and single suicides). If this finding is generalized nationally, it would suggest that there may be over 2,900 IPV-related suicides per year in the U.S., a number comparable to the total number of intimate partner homicides per year in the U.S.

When exploring IPV-related single suicide specifically, study authors found that the majority (81%) occurred among males, and most (73%) of these men had recently perpetrated non-fatal IPV. For IPV-related single suicides, physical violence was the most common type of IPV recorded in the death narratives, followed by emotional abuse.

This study highlights some important opportunities for integrated IPV and suicide prevention.

The lead author, Kafka, explained that “in practice, we often ignore the potential for a suicidal IPV perpetrator to authentically be suicidal. We simply assume that any reported IPV perpetrator suicide threats signal that they are homicidal (i.e., likely to commit homicide-suicide). We need to keep asking about IPV perpetrator suicide threats to inform victim safety planning. But we also have the opportunity to refer IPV perpetrators to mental health treatment or supports to address suicidality, which is simply not happening right now.”

Additionally, more trauma-informed approaches to batterer’s intervention programs that incorporate suicide prevention elements could help strengthen effectiveness of these programs while providing much needed suicide prevention services.

“We were really surprised to see how many suicides were connected to IPV. Our study was pretty conservative in our approach, so the total contribution of IPV to suicide is probably much higher,” Kafka said. She also pointed to some additional key takeaways from this study: “It’s interesting because previous IPV research has focused only on suicidal thoughts and behaviors among female IPV victims, or on homicide-suicide. Our study shows that a large group is being left out of the conversation; many male IPV perpetrators die by suicide (without committing homicide). Shifting our focus to consider this overlooked group could help us find new ways to effectively prevent both interpersonal and self-directed violence, which is really exciting.”

Study authors also included Laurie Graham, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, Rebecca Macy, IPRC core faculty and associate dean for research and faculty development at the UNC School of Social Work, and Scott Proescholdbell, injury epidemiologist at the NC Department of Health and Human Services’ Injury and Violence Prevention Branch.

Read the full study online.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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