Unknown victims — The hidden toll of domestic violence on suicide rates

Unsafe at Home

Mary Jenerett poses for a photo on Oct. 19, 2021, outside of her home.

The following is part of a multi-week series on domestic violence in South Carolina.

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) – Mary Jenerett was beaten, choked and kidnapped by her abuser.

She left, and then came back. Left, and then came back. She thought he’d kill her. But she was still in love. 

“Then, one day, it got to a point where I broke,” Jenerett said. 

She attempted suicide. 

Jenerett, who has since escaped her abusive relationship and gone on to be outspoken about her trauma, was later diagnosed with depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

Rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD are high among domestic violence survivors, who have been constantly belittled and separated from their support systems.

“When people don’t feel as if they have any control over their destiny, people that are in relationships where domestic violence is present, they do have increased risks of depression and anxiety,” said Allison Farrell, the director of emergency services for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. “The stress of the abuse itself can have poor outcomes.”

But while data on how many victims are killed by an intimate partner is available, it’s unknown how many people in abusive relationships die by or attempt suicide.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care found that women who had experienced domestic violence showed poor mental health status, which can lead to insomnia, the development of an eating disorder, PTSD or substance abuse. About one-third of the women who had been physically abused in the last year had an unhealthy mental status. 

About 93% of women who have been abused have had suicidal thoughts, according to the study. 

But the problem, Farrell said, is that current data and violent death reporting systems aren’t capturing information on suicides.

“We need robust data, and we need to really be able to clearly define the issue, but we can’t solve the issue without being able to define it, and right now we do have limitations in the data, related specifically to suicide.”

In South Carolina, 43.2% of women and 29.2% of men will experience intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence or stalking in their lifetimes, according to data from the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA). 

South Carolina consistently ranks among the worst states for its rate of domestic violence and amount of women who are killed by men. There were at least 39 domestic violence-related deaths in the state last year, and there are an average of 32,563 cases of intimate partner violence each year. 

There were 838 people who died by suicide in South Carolina in 2017, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

A possible suicide not included in the data may bea woman identified in a case study as Lara Andersen, according to the 2019 annual report from the South Carolina Domestic Advisory Committee. 

Andersen had already left an abusive relationship with one man. He was charged with domestic violence and violated both his bond and a no-contact order, however, police didn’t penalize him for the violations.

Failure to enforce the order, the report said, made her lose faith in law enforcement.

She later began a relationship with another partner, who was also abusive. Andersen was found dead in 2009 of what appeared to be a drug overdose.

“However, there had been a prior domestic violence incident between her and Gilmore several hours before, at another location,” the report reads. “No arrest was made in that incident, and the officer did not generate an incident report. When Andersen’s death was investigated by law enforcement, the ongoing domestic violence in the relationship did not appear to raise suspicion or even be considered. The cause of death was ruled an accidental overdose, although the medical examiner considered suicide.”

The coroner might have changed his mind if he’d known about the incident that happened only hours before her death, according to the report.  

A combination of factors can lead to domestic violence survivors developing a mental illness.

“You do see fairly high rates of depression and anxiety around some of the victims of domestic violence, and social isolation, which leads to even more distressing mental health outcomes,” Farrell said. 

Stigmas surrounding both domestic violence and mental health can make it harder to seek help. When a survivor doesn’t feel like they can share their story, Farrell said, they can get even more isolated. Being depressed also impacts someone’s ability to advocate for themself. Conditions like PTSD can also have long-lasting impacts without intervention. 

Abuse, which landed her in the hospital multiple times, made Lashonda Vereen withdraw from her friends.

“I think mentally it put a lot of fear in me,” she said. “Simple things I never gave a second thought to, I was fearful about.”

She was afraid of seeking help in case she was judged for her abuse.

“I went into a shell and I stayed away from everybody – family, friends,” Vereen said. 

The Family Justice Center in Georgetown County can help survivors get connected with mental health resources when they come in, according to Kim Parsons, the center’s director. The center assists people in both Horry and Georgetown counties. 

“We do see that there are clients who come in who have mental health issues that have been untreated for years, just because they maybe weren’t allowed to, or we see that substance abuse is forced on some of our clients, as well, to keep that control of power,” Parsons said. 

She said that partners may have withheld medication, as well. 

Hope Hanna, the domestic violence and crisis line coordinator for the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, remembers a woman telling her that COVID-19 was a relief, because she had been wearing a mask long before that. 

People thought she had a perfect life – and then she’d go home “to hell.”

Survivors will begin services thinking that they weren’t bringing anything to the table because their abusers have made them reliant on them.

“They are broken, they are beaten down,” Hanna said. 

Then, they start opening up.

“A lot of items they don’t realize they are depressed, they don’t understand that they are experiencing anxiety a lot of the time until you start speaking with them, or you get to a place where it is just you and them, and they are able to breathe,” Hanna said. 

The coalition provides some counseling services to help survivors. The state also operates a mobile crisis unit that can provide on-site assessments.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, the following resources are available:

Family Justice Center:

Crisis line: (844) 208-0161

Website: fjcgown.horry.org

Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault

Crisis line: (800) 273-1820

Website: peedeecoalition.org

More local domestic violence resources are available at sccadvasa.org/get-help/.

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