Domestic violence is a factor in up to one-quarter of female suicide attempts. Female victims of domestic violence have eight times the risk for suicide compared with the general population. Fifty percent of battered women who attempt suicide undertake subsequent attempts. Married females experience lower suicide rates compared with single females; however, if domestic violence is present in the marriage, the risk of suicide increases. If a pregnant woman is a victim of domestic violence, the risk of suicide increases. One in twelve pregnant women experience battering such as hits to the abdomen, breasts, or genitals, while 20 percent of pregnant female victims of domestic violence attempt suicide. Many female victims of domestic violence indicate that their rate of victimization increased when they became pregnant. Along with domestic violence, the prior loss of a child by miscarriage or a desire for abortion also increase suicidal tendencies. Research shows that in addition to married and pregnant women, young girls experiencing domestic violence also have increased rates of suicide.
Various risk factors relate to suicidality among female domestic violence victims. Most obviously, the physical and psychological abuse by a partner may trigger suicidal thoughts. However, other underlying factors are relevant, which concern individual and social issues. Regarding individual issues, research alludes to genetic factors involving family histories of suicide, and points to problems involving mental disorders, including aspects of anxiety, nervous breakdowns, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Depression and posttraumatic stress may be results of ongoing abuse from a partner or lingering aftereffects of a trauma occurring years earlier. For example, some battered females with suicidal tendencies indicate that they still deal with the psychological effects of sexual, emotional, or physical maltreatment experienced as a child. Combined with factors of low esteem, these psychological effects can trigger suicidal thoughts when victims blame themselves for their abuse. Regarding social issues, research emphasizes the importance of social bonds. Following sociological models of suicides, research shows that females in domestic violence situations are more likely to attempt suicide when low levels of social support exist. This includes friends and family networks. With all factors, the likelihood of suicide increases when victims use drugs as a coping mechanism.
Another motivation for female suicide in domestic violence situations involves a shift of shame. Here, the embarrassment of abuse causes battered women to fail to seek help from others. The suicide represents a transfer of shame to the victimizer or others in the battered woman’s social network who did not step forward to help her. Not only does the suicide bring humiliation to others, but it also serves as a tool of revenge and a final act of empowerment.
The Impact of Divorce Laws
Research in the field of household economics indicates that females considering suicide in domestic violence situations benefit from unilateral, no-fault divorce laws. Traditional divorce laws require specific legal reasons for marriage dissolution. They also require both spouses to consent to the divorce. In states with traditional divorce laws, females experiencing abuse by coercive spouses experience legal entrapment. Even if a wife wants out of the relationship, she legally cannot dissipate the marriage contract without her husband’s approval. This leaves suicide as a viable option. The balance of power in marriage shifts when states institute unilateral divorce. Abused wives have the power to legally end marriages on their own rather than experience the misery of an abusive relationship that could result in the taking of their own lives. Confronted with a possible divorce, husbands have the choice to correct abusive behavior or let the marriage end.
Work in this area examines domestic violence and suicide rates before and after states enacted unilateral divorce. It shows a significant decline in reports of spousal violence carried out by husbands against wives with the enactment of unilateral divorce laws. On the other hand, it also shows an increase in spousal violence carried out by wives against husbands. In relation to suicide, it indicates a 6 percent reduction in female suicides. There is a lag between the passing of unilateral divorce laws and the reduction of violence and suicide. In some areas, research indicates, the reduction of domestic violence and suicide may take up to twenty years. It sometimes takes that long before battered women comprehend new social norms associated with no-fault divorce and recognize the previously absent bargaining power available.
The Impact of the Battered Woman’s Defense
Suicide and divorce are not the only alternatives for female victims of domestic violence. They may opt to kill abusive partners. Twelve percent of homicides by women in the United States involve the killing of a partner in an abusive relationship. This sometimes involves the murder of an abusive partner followed by a suicide. However, with legal defenses involving battered woman syndrome becoming more acceptable, judges and juries are acknowledging the detrimental impact of domestic violence on females. In turn, some scholars indicate that female suicide following the homicide of an abusive spouse is dropping.
If a female victim of domestic violence is contemplating or has attempted suicide, several recommendations exist. It is necessary to break the cycle of violence lying beneath the urge to commit suicide. Victims should confront embedded feelings and come to terms with self-blame. They should also break destructive patterns involving the use or abuse of alcohol or drugs. These substances have the potential to increase suicidal urges in situations of domestic violence. Victims should seek to build social bonds with friends and family. The increase of communication, intimacy, and recreational activity with people outside of the abusive relationship is critical. On a wider scale, a need for community-based prevention programs may be necessary. These programs should involve public service announcements to increase general awareness of female suicide and its link to domestic violence, but also to educate females on alternatives to suicide in domestic violence situations. Community programs should also involve official assistance organizations. If victims do not have the backing of friends and family, formal support groups composed of other abusers are beneficial. In addition, organizations that provide legal and economic resources to females in abusive relationships prove helpful.
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