Young men who attempt suicide before age 18 are much more likely as adults to be aggressive to their girlfriends or wives, including hitting and injuring their partners, according to a new study released June 14th.
Researchers at Oregon State University found a surprisingly large association between a prior suicide attempt and future domestic violence. When followed from their early teens, 58 percent of males studied who had attempted suicide went on to injure a partner, compared to 23 percent of young men who had not attempted suicide.
David Kerr of Oregon State University and Deborah Capaldi of the Eugene-based Oregon Social Learning Center followed 153 males from higher crime neighborhoods from ages 10 through 32. These young men were assessed on a yearly basis. In addition, their romantic partners were assessed annually when the men were ages 18 through 25.
The researchers used data from the women’s own report of injury, official domestic violence injury reports, and live observations of the couple in addition to reports from the men themselves.
“The study began when these men were kids, before anyone knew who was going to become violent,” said Kerr, an assistant professor at OSU who studies youth suicide, health-risking behaviors and depression. “That is quite different from research that starts with violent men, or women from a domestic violence shelter, and looks back in time for explanations.”
Even after controlling for other variables such as aggression, depression, substance use and a family history of abuse, there was still an association between attempted suicide and aggression toward partners.
“It was fascinating that this link just refused to be explained away,” said Kerr.
Capaldi, a senior scientist with the Oregon Social Learning Center who has studied domestic violence for years, says that these results suggest that, “for some men, violence is related to a history of impulse aggression that includes self-harm as well as aggression towards others.”
Kerr and Capaldi say that thinking about, rather than attempting suicide, was not associated with future violence. The ability to control the suicidal impulse may correlate with the ability to control other violent impulses. “One can be intensely distressed and suicidal without acting on it,” said Kerr. “It may be a man’s capacity to hurt himself that makes him more likely to hurt a domestic partner.”
“These findings do not mean that violent men can claim, ‘I can’t help myself,'” Kerr points out. “Partner violence is a huge problem for women and children, and men are responsible for their behavior.”
“When men are told that domestic abuse is solely due to cold, controlling and systematic battering, they may dismiss their own problem since such a pattern does not apply to them. If men understood that it may be more related to controlling anger and impulsive reactions under stress, they may become more aware that they are at risk and take take the responsibility for learning to avoid this,” says Capaldi.
This new study further demonstrates the importance of providing targeted interventions with suicidal teens. Not only is a history of a suicide attempt associated with a risk of completed suicide, further suicide attempts, depression, and substance abuse, but it now appears to be associated with a risk for future partner abuse.
Capaldi said that effective prevention and treatment programs can strike at a whole host of underlying issues in a troubled child or teen.
“Adolescent boys who attempt suicide are at risk for serious long-term problems,” she said, “and thus targeted prevention aimed at decreasing future aggression and increasing behavioral and emotional control is really necessary.”
This study, funded by the National Institute of Health, is published online in the journal Psychological Medicine
Source: Psychological Medicine