Summary: People who receive threatening or obscene text messages and other communications from current or former partners are more likely to experience mental health problems including depression and anxiety, and have an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
Source: King’s College London
A new study from The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London has found that individuals who have received threatening or obscene messages from their current or former partners in the last year were more likely to experience Common Mental Disorders (CMDs) and suicidal thoughts.
The research, which has been published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, found that 2/5 of those individuals that had received abusive messages in the last year had received them monthly or more.
Data from 6857 interviewees who had had at least one partner and participated in the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey were analysed. Participants were surveyed on a range of topics, including exposure to threatening messages, as well as previous experiences of abuse, both childhood and adult.
While exposure to physical and emotional abuse is a well-documented aspect of abusive relationships, the effects of threatening or obscene messages are less well examined. They are defined in this study as repeated unwanted texts, emails, letters or cards sent by a current of former partner that is designed to cause fear, alarm or distress.
When taken as a whole, the study found that 1 in 15 (6.6%) people had received two or more threatening messages from a current or former partner, but women were twice as likely to have received these messages than men (8.7% as opposed to 4.4%)
Those most at risk of these messages were young women aged between 16-24, who were either single or divorced, unemployed, and from lower income households. However, the study found that threatening or obscene messaging was evident across all groups surveyed.
Recipients of threatening messages were also much more likely to have other types of violence in the past. They were three times more likely to have experienced some form of childhood abuse (emotional, sexual, and/or physical), and two-thirds (69.7%) of women and half of men (48.8%) who received threatening/obscene messages had experienced physical partner–violence at some point in adulthood, compared with 14.6% of women and 8.2% of men who had not received threatening/obscene messages.
Strikingly, the study found that rates of Common Mental Disorders were more than twice as high in people who had received threatening or obscene messages (39.2%) than in those who did not (15.2%), while rates of non-suicidal self-harm and suicidal thoughts were also higher.
Professor Louise Howard, the study’s lead investigator from King’s IoPPN and senior author said, “Most interestingly, even after accounting for prior experiences of abuse, the receipt of threatening messages remained a major contributing factor to the development of illnesses like depression and anxiety.
“Our data highlights the importance of health care professionals routinely incorporating explicit questions about threatening messages from current or former partners within safety assessments to ensure that any threats, intimidation or harassment isn’t being missed.”
For other work in this area see also the UKRI-funded network on violence, abuse and mental health – www.vamhn.co.uk.
Receiving threatening or obscene messages from a partner and mental health, self‑harm and suicidality: results from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey
Threatening or obscene messaging is repeated, unwanted texts, emails, letters or cards experienced by the recipient as threatening or obscene, and causing fear, alarm or distress. It is rarely examined as an aspect of intimate partner violence. We describe the prevalence of exposure to threatening/obscene messaging from a current or ex-partner; characteristics of victims; and associations with other forms of violence and abuse, mental disorder, self-harm, and suicidality.
Cross-sectional probability-sample survey of the general population in England aged 16 + . Multivariable regression modelling tested associations between receipt of threatening/obscene messaging and current common mental disorder, past-year self-harm and suicidality.
Threatening/obscene messages were received from a current/ex-partner by 6.6% (95%CI: 5.9–7.3) of adults who had been in a relationship; 1.7% received these in the past year. Victims were more likely to be female, under 35, single or divorced, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and to have experienced other forms of sexual and partner violence and abuse. Those who received threatening/obscene messages in the past year were more likely to experience common mental disorder (adjusted odds ratio 1.89; 1.01–3.55), self-harm (2.31; 1.00–5.33), and suicidal thoughts (2.00; 1.06–3.78).
Threatening/obscene messaging commonly occurs in the context of intimate partner violence. While often occurring alongside sexual and physical violence, messaging has an additional association with mental disorder and suicidality. Routine enquiry in service settings concerning safety, including those working with people who have escaped domestic violence, should ask about ongoing contact from previous as well as current partners. This should include asking about messaging, as well as other forms of potentially technology-enabled abuse which may become increasingly common.