Domestic Abuse & Suicide 

It’s a horrific but relatively known fact that on average, two women are killed by a partner or former partner every week in England and Wales. What remains far more hidden, however, is the stark number of women who take their own life as a direct result of experiencing domestic abuse. 

Domestic abuse is still too often seen as an issue of violence alone. Yet many women in our refuges tell us that the emotional abuse, resulting trauma and mental health implications stay with them for far longer. 

Research in this area is limited, but the figures that do exist are harrowing. A 2018 study by the University of Warwickfocusing on more than 3,500 women supported by domestic abuse charity Refuge, uncovered that almost a quarter (24%) of women supported by the charity had felt suicidal at one time or another. A staggering 83% reported feelings of hopelessness and despair, key symptoms of suicidal ideation. 

The research also found that nearly a fifth (18%) of participants had actively planned to take their own lives, while data from charity SafeLives indicated a similar number (17%) had planned or attempted suicide.  

Perhaps most troubling is data from Professor Sylvia Walby, whose research estimates that approximately one in eight of all female suicides and suicide attempts in the UK are due to domestic violence and abuse. This equates to 200 women taking their own lives and 10,000 attempting to do so due to domestic abuse every year in the UK. That’s nearly 30 women attempting to complete suicide every single day. 

Concerned by the lack of research in this space, the Transforming Health and Social Care in Kent and Medway partnership (STP) conducted its own research, concluding that almost 1 in 5 (19%) 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.  

ONS figures indicate that approximately 2.million adults experience domestic abuse every year in England and Wales. But we know that domestic abuse is a hidden crime, happening behind closed doors, and the true number of victims is likely to be much higher. It’s likely then that many other individuals experiencing domestic abuse have thought about or made plans to end their lives. 

Despite its pervasiveness, the issue is scarcely recognised in wider societal discussions. High profile cases have made headlines, such as that of Gurjit Dhaliwal, who took her own life in 2006 after 25 years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, or the more recent case of Alex Reid, who killed herself in February 2020after her abusive partner told her that no one would believe her. These cases have shone a light on what is happening in every corner of the UK, and yet the dots are still not connected.  

The Pandemic 

During the pandemic, connecting these dots is all the more vital. We know that there has been a rise in domestic abuse during lockdown; calls to the Met Police about abuse have risen by 12%, while we saw a 38% rise in the number of people trying to access our domestic abuse services. Mental health has also been a paramount concern throughout Covid, as isolation and anxiety has taken hold of many of us. 

Earlier this year, we conducted a rapid study into the prevalence of suicidal ideation among women in our refuges during the pandemic, with worrying results. It found that between July and September 2020, four out of every 100 women were contemplating or planning to take their own lives, compared to just one in every 100 in the same period in 2019. Last month, we presented our findings to the Government’s National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group, exploring the impact of Covid-19 on survivors of domestic abuse and risk factors enhanced by the pandemic.  

It’s important to note that it is more complex than to simply suggest that the pandemic is causing more domestic abuse survivors to feel suicidal. As Samaritans states, there is often no one cause or reason why someone takes their own life. 

However, we have heard from women in our refuges who say that being told to stay indoors is retraumatising, particularly for those who faced coercive and controlling behaviour as part of their experience. 

One woman told us how being forced to share a single room with her son during lockdown made her feel like a bad parent, making her feel suicidal. Another mentioned the lack of face-to face support during the pandemic as one of the reasons she felt unable to cope, while another told us that the pandemic prevented her from seeing her children, due to the closure of contact centres, leading to her suicidal ideation. 

Women in refuges who would have otherwise been able to explore their new areas, meet new people and benefit from in-person support have instead been stuck indoors, grappling with a new environment and immense uncertainty. Women have had their move on to other accommodation delayed, and their opportunity to move forward to a life beyond crisis halted. 

The link between domestic abuse and suicide has long been overlooked, and as we emerge from a global crisis that has significantly intensified both issues, now is the time for this link to be examined closely and preventative measures put in place. 

The first step is to lay the foundations for greater collaboration between the mental health and domestic abuse sectors, so we can begin to see the bigger picture. 

In Kent, the STP has started work in providing mental health training to specialist domestic abuse practitioners and vice versa, which is vital in raising awareness of the needs of those supported by both sectors. Trauma workshops have also been facilitated for victims and a mental health support text service has been launched. 

Earlier this year, Hestia hosted a roundtable discussion with key individuals across both sectors, including Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs and Sarah Anderson, CEO of suicide prevention charity The Listening Place. Our intention was to bring the two sectors together and begin to explore how we can start to bring trauma-informed solutions into all areas of the domestic abuse sector, from the moment someone is identified as at risk of experiencing domestic abuse, to the point of them exiting specialist support services. 

Thankfully, this work is continuing. Just this month, the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) and Kent and Medway STP hosted a roundtable, providing opportunity for specialists in both sectors to discuss how better to collaborate in tackling the issue. Hestia also joined the NSPA as a member, keen to take forward this area of work and learn how we can do more to prevent suicide for victims of domestic abuse. 

If the pathways between domestic abuse and mental health services are clearer, we can begin to properly address this issue; one that is plaguing the country more than we may ever know.