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Young Men Who Attempt Suicide More Likely to Abuse Partners Later in Life

A new study has found that males who attempt suicide before age 18 are much more likely to be aggressive towards their partners later in life, including physical abuse. The study, published online in the journal Psychological Medicine, underscores the importance of intervention for suicidal teens.

David Kerr of Oregon State University and Deborah Capaldi of the Oregon Social Learning Center gathered data from 153 males from neighborhoods with higher crime rates who were assessed yearly from ages 10 to 32, as well as their romantic partners, who participated when the men were between 18 and 25.

The researchers were surprised at the strong association between attempted suicide and domestic abuse. Of those who attempted suicide, 58 percent injured a partner, compared with 23 percent of young men who did not attempt suicide.

Kerr, an assistant professor of psychology at OSU who studies youth suicide, depression, and risky behaviors, said that the study began when the men were children, long before anyone knew who would become violent. He explained that this is very different from research that starts with violent men or women who have been abused and tries to look back for explanations.

Instead of relying on one source of information, such as men’s self-reports of aggression, the researchers used data from arrest records, women’s reports of injury, and observations of the couples.

They screened for other problems that are linked to domestic abuse, such as aggression, depression, substance abuse, and family history of abuse. Even with these controls, the researchers still found that young men who attempted suicide were more aggressive toward their partners.

Capaldi, a senior scientist with Oregon Social Learning Center who has studied issues around domestic violence for many years, said that the study indicates that for some men, violence is related to a history of aggression that includes self-harm as well as harm to others. This differs from conventional wisdom, which portrays men’s violence to women as more cold and calculated. She added that their findings add to a growing body of work that indicates that men and women who are physically aggressive toward a partner have histories of problems with aggressive and impulsive behavior.

These findings could be very important for prevention and treatment, Capaldi said. If men understand that their behavior may be related to controlling anger and impulsive reactions when under stress, they may be able to take more responsibility for learning how to control their emotions.

Although contemplating suicide in adolescence has been found to predict suicide risk in adulthood, it was never previously linked to domestic abuse or injury. Kerr said that the difference between contemplating suicide and actually attempting it could be important in understanding the link between attempted suicide and partner abuse. He said it could be the capacity to hurt oneself that makes one more likely to hurt someone else.

Kerr noted that the study shows that suicidal behavior is not trivial at any age, and that it can have long-term circumstances for individuals and their partners. Capaldi added that prevention aimed at decreasing future aggression and increasing emotional and behavioral control is necessary.

Source: Science Daily, Teen Boys Who Attempted Suicide More Likely to Abuse Partners as Adults, Study Finds, June 17, 2010. 

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