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09 August 2021

Abusive messages from a partner increase the likelihood of experiencing mental illness and suicidal thoughts

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.


TW // This post contains discussion of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and suicide. If you are affected by anything that follows, links to support can be found at the bottom of the page.

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.

“The receipt of threatening messages is rarely in isolation of other forms of abuse, but the effects are clear. We can see from our study that people who receive these messages are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts."

Professor Louise Howard, King's IoPPN

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.”


Receiving threatening or obscene messages from a partner and mental health, self‑harm and suicidality: results from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey ( (Sally McManus, Paul E. Bebbington, Leonie Tanczer, Sara Scott, Louise M. Howard) was published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology

For other work in this area see also the UKRI-funded network on violence, abuse and mental health -

If you’ve been affected by anything you’ve read in this article, you can find support from the following using the following links:

Refuge (Support for Women) -

Respect (Support for Men) -

For more information, please contact Patrick O’Brien (Senior Media Officer)

In this story


Emeritus Professor, Women's Mental Health