How to Know if a Woman is in Danger of Being Killed and What You Can do About it suicide homicide Clare Murphy PhDIn the family violence scenario threats of suicide are manipulative and can lead to killing others.

Threats of suicide by a man with a history of psychologically controlling his partner can be an indicator that he could seriously harm or murder family members, often before killing himself. Such threats make it vital for wider family and friends to urge and support a woman to seek frontline help from skilled professionals.

Conducting a Homicide Risk Assessment Tool helps determine level of risk and can keep family members safe – and get appropriate help for the man.

When a controlling man threatens suicide to manipulate his partner these threats are grave – not because he may kill himself necessarily – but because everyday reality in USA, UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia show such a man can go on to kill his partner and/or his children.

A reader of my blog titled “Domestic violence is much more than physical violence” wrote a comment outlining her concern for her friend whose husband threatens to kill himself as a way of getting her to do what he wants. She states that her friend called her husband to tell him she intended taking the children to her parents for the weekend. But he “left work drove on the highway behind them called her on her cellphone and told her to pull over and come home with him or he would kill himself”. Other men who make such threats say things like, “If you ever leave me, then I’m going to kill myself”, or “I can’t live without you”, or “If I can’t have you no-one can”, or “Death before divorce”, or “You belong to me, no other”.

Not only are these statements coercive – aimed at appealing to women’s sense of responsibility – but they should never be taken lightly. Too often these threats turn to reality. Threatening to commit suicide is a pointer, a red flag of grave concern much like when someone abuses an animal. It represents a risk factor that points toward a real possibility that the person will also abuse family members, as I have discussed previously.

Homicide-suicide may be a comparatively rare problem, not everything finally gets to murder. But it can – and it does

Psychological abuse and power and control know no bounds. There are no rules of certainty about how far things may go – but there is a growing worldwide body of knowledge that cannot be ignored. It’s essential to know what to look out for in order to take precautions to keep family members safe.

So my blog is intended to give you information to help support women who may not be informed about indicators and risk factors that may lead to murder. It is not only OK to speak up and help women, it’s vital.

Remaining silent contributes to the problem – as does ignorance

I know anecdotally that a woman who was killed by her controlling ex-husband last year may have been saved if her family had fully understood the very real risks of her leaving her husband and going back to the house to collect her possessions. Tragically her family had been trying to do all they could to support her – but their lack of knowledge about the signs of abuse makes the woman’s death even sadder.

Some suicidal men may commit homicide before killing themselves

Threats to commit suicide is a red flag, an indicator that such a man could go on to seriously harm or kill his partner and those most close. Men commit most of the homicide-suicide cases. Most victims are women and children. Therefore it is imperative that women (or their supporters) learn to understand the nature and gravity of the situation and seek help by way of a risk assessment.

Find professional help to conduct a risk assessment

Staff at women’s family violence programmes or men’s stopping abuse programmes should be able to assist you in conducting a risk assessment tool. You should expect staff to conduct: “a review of the case history, risk factors, the nature of the risk, the necessity for immediate intervention, safeguarding the victim, and managing the perpetrator” (Office of the Chief Coroner Province of Ontario 2006:45).

Be aware though that not all professionals are specifically trained in the dynamics of family violence and risk factors that can lead to serious harm or murder. In their fourth annual report of the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, the Office of the Chief Coroner Province of Ontario (2006) describe some cases in which members of the public and/or professionals did not intervene effectively. The following is one case in which both the man and the woman had involvement with the mental health system at different times in their lives:

“. . . and there was some vague reference to abuse in her relationship, however this was never explored, followed up on or dealt with . . . in the years directly prior to the murder-suicide, the perpetrator had become seriously disturbed and socially isolated . . . yet there was no apparent screening, exploration of relationship issues or abuse by any mental health professional. Level of risk must be assessed and managed. The perpetrator was identified as ‘seriously depressed’ and was encouraged to retrieve his gun to be able to go hunting as form of therapy. However the gun was used in the homicide” (2006:15).

It is vital that the professionals you approach take seriously the possible danger to family members, other than the man who threatens suicide

If you are not satisfied that the professionals you contact seem to understand the problem or that they minimise or ignore it – then it’s important you keep searching for appropriate help. Professionals must “assess whether there is also homicidal ideation when individuals report suicidal ideation and vice versa” (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2009:5) and professionals must be trained in how to use a risk assessment tool.

Risk assessment tools

A risk assessment tool is based on years of research of real life situations worldwide. Risk factors can include psychological, biological, sociological and other factors that were often present for someone who murders, or attempts to murder a family member. However, not every situation is the same and risk assessments are only indicators of possibilities. To avoid missing or misinterpreting clues it is important that lay people do not try to figure this out alone. People trained in the dynamics of family violence can help you and the woman you are supporting.

Trained professionals will assist you in understanding what the list of risk factors means in any given, individual situation.

Campbell’s Intimate Partner Violence Risk Assessment

You can download Jacquelyn Campbell’s Intimate Partner Violence Risk Assessment tools here and take it to a trained professional who will explain exactly how the assessment works. I have discussed this risk assessment instrument in another blog post here.

Risk Factors indicated by Barbara J. Hart Esq.

  1. Threats of homicide or suicide
  2. Fantasies of homicide or suicide
  3. Access to weapons, previous use of weapons and/or threats to use weapons
  4. “Ownership” of the battered partner
  5. Centrality of the partner
  6. Separation violence
  7. Depression
  8. Access to the battered woman and/or to family members
  9. Repeated involvement with the justice system
  10. Increase in personal risk taking
  11. Hostage-taking

Barbara Hart’s list of risk factors are available here.

Risk Factors compiled by the Office of the Chief Coroner Province of Ontario

The Office of the Chief Coroner Province of Ontario (2006) compiled detailed information about risk factors that might lead to murder. You can download a copy of their fourth annual report of the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee (see reference below) and read pages 30-33. You could take the report with you to a family violence trained person who will assist you in dealing with the perpetrator’s behaviours and will know the steps to take to help keep family members safe.

Risk Factors flagged by New Zealand Police

Risk factors compiled by the New Zealand Police set out below aim to alert professionals that a particular situation may indicate that someone is at risk of dying or suffering serious harm (you can see the following risk factors on page 83 in the Standards New Zealand, 2006 document here).

  1. The offender is obsessed with, dependent upon, or is stalking the victim.
  2. Recent separation, issue of a court order, or divorce and responding in a dangerous manner.
  3. The victim believes the offender could injure or kill her/him.
  4. The offender has strangled or attempted to strangle the victim.
  5. There is a history of family violence and it is getting more severe or increasing in frequency.
  6. The offender has threatened / attempted to commit suicide, or to kill the victim, children or other family members.
  7. The offender has access to weapons, particularly firearms and has used, or threatened to use them. They may have convictions involving weapons (knives, firearms).
  8. The offender has easy access to the victim, children or other family members.
  9. Children are in the home when the violence occurred or have been hurt or threatened in family violence situations.
  10. Incidents of animal abuse by the offender.
  11. The offender has a history of alcohol or drug problems.
  12. The offender has a history of violent behaviour against non-family members.

A history of physical violence is just one possible risk factor. Marie De Santis, from the Women’s Justice Center, Santa Rosa, CA, USA emphasises that many risk factors “usually don’t bleed! In fact, these high risk factors often don’t leave any visible marks at all.”

“If only …”

Speak up on women’s behalf

I urge you to speak up on behalf of women when you believe they’re at risk of serious harm or murder. Silence is not an option anymore – psychological abuse, power and control, family violence are no longer private matters. Keeping abuse private is actually yet another tactic of control and isolation. If you know any woman experiencing anything discussed in this blog, I urge you to support her. She may be isolated and unsure and not be able to help herself in some circumstances. She might not realise the gravity of what a threat of suicide can lead to, and she may not be reading this website or able to find other resources to help herself. The very nature of power and control isolates many women, creates confusion, is crazymaking and can be debilitating financially and psychologically.

You may be her sole link – and only hope

Women need support – some women might reject it – but ultimately keeping women safe from serious harm or death is everyone’s responsibility.

Ask the woman whether she believes she is safe or not

Some women are capable of assessing for themselves whether their partner is capable of killing her, but many are not (as I discussed in a previous blog post).

The Washington State Department of Health guidelines (2008:8) suggest that you could assess the woman’s immediate safety by asking:

  • Do you feel safe to go home today?
  • Are you afraid that your partner may seriously harm you?
  • Are there weapons in your home? What type?
  • Has your partner ever threatened you with homicide or suicide?
  • Is confidential shelter an option you are interested in seeking?
  • What is your plan if future violence occurs?
  • What is one thing, in your opinion, that could be done to support you?

However . . . in a case reported by the Office of the Chief Coroner, Province of Ontario (2006:17):

“the victim [of homicide] did not feel that her partner posed a threat of lethal violence although many warning signs were present that were consistent with a potential risk for domestic homicide. There were opportunities for friends, family and community professionals to intervene but they appeared to feel limited or stymied in these attempts because the victim believed she could handle the situation on her own. Research in this field suggests that approximately half of domestic homicide victims minimized the risks posed and saw their partner as harassing and annoying, but not dangerous. In these matters, the public and professional interveners need enhanced skills to engage the victim in a discussion on the risks that are apparent and the importance of safety planning and risk reduction strategies. These approaches have to recognize the victim’s ambivalence or guilt about separation and her misguided belief that she can manage the threats on her own without police or court intervention.”

Refer to my blog for discussing safety tips with women if they intend leaving their partner. AND seek professional help with this too. I have yet to write safety tips for women if they stay with their partner or if they’ve already left him. For help with those two scenarios I suggest googling for that help.

It is not enough to just warn the victim that she may be in danger

A description of some homicide-suicide situations from the Ontario death review is available for reading in the Office of the Chief Coroner’s 2006 document (see below for the reference). These case studies show that it was not enough to just warn the victim that she may be in danger. Often friends, family, workmates, and so forth suspected there were high levels of risk for various women, “however, with no assistance from any outside resources, were unable to intervene effectively” (2006:11).

It suggests you do not make any conclusions from the above risk assessment tools yourself. Marie De Santis from the Women’s Justice Center in California reiterates in her document on homicide risk assessment the very things I emphasise:

“The only sure way to determine the presence of these high risk factors is through careful, comprehensive victim interviews.”

Men who abuse and control their female partner need help

For my PhD research I interviewed men who admitted to abusing and controlling their female partners. All the men had sought help to change. Often men who use power and control are actually quite vulnerable and dependent on their partner – which in part contributes to their desperation to never let her leave. One man told me the following:

“Well I’d certainly recommend if anybody was in a similar position to me that they should come and attend one of these courses, it’s certainly helped me, like if I didn’t come to this course, I probably wouldn’t have changed my behaviour and I’d be a single man now. Either that, or I would’ve jumped off a bridge, I don’t know, I certainly wouldn’t be happy, I’d say that. Not that I’m big on killing myself or any of that nonsense, but yeah, my life would be over if my wife left me, I would have nothing to live for.”

However, often men refuse to admit they are abusive and refuse to get help to change.

Many men don’t believe they’re perpetrators of family violence, rather they think other men are

One man I interviewed said he had been sneakily hiding his abuse against his partner and that a neighbour had once come over for help to get a protection order against her husband. The man I interviewed said that at the time it did not occur to him that he was abusing his wife in the same way that his neighbour was abusing his.

The popular culture is full of stereotypes about what kind of man threatens suicide to control his wife and what kind of man kills his wife. But it is ordinary men, it is men you buy your groceries from, men you seek insurance advice from, men who are wonderful school teachers, men who offer you help to clear your yard on the weekend. Generally, monsters do not commit murder – it is ordinary men who can, and do monstrous things. Men’s stopping abuse programmes are there to help ordinary men to face the truth of what they do that harms others. And once they start attending – many realise they’ve also been harming themselves and many admit they don’t like harming their loved ones and they want to be challenged and want support to change.

Remember that threats can have serious implications in the end

And speaking up on behalf of others is a way to keep victims safe and a possible way to encourage help for offenders. While most men who threaten suicide or homicide are able to disengage emotionally, Johnston and Campbell (1993) state that some remain obsessed with the woman.

You never want to hear yourself saying “If only . . . .”
So please . . . . speak up, speak out loud on behalf of women. Keep the family safe.


Share SpeakOutLoud

Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.