In the mid-1980s, researchers recruited 206 fourth-grade boys in Oregon to take part in a study designed to examine the factors that contribute to delinquency in adolescence.
Today, those Eugene-Springfield-area boys have grown up. And the Oregon Social Learning Center study, paid for by the National Institutes of Health, continues with 153 of those participants and their partners agreeing to take part in additional research that examines their relationships.
And here's an interesting finding from the Oregon Youth Study: Those who had tried suicide by age 17 or 18 weremore than twiceas likely to physically injure their romantic partners later in life than those who hadn't, according to psychologists David Kerr of Oregon State University and Deborah Capaldi of the Social Learning Center.
"There might be some shared underlying vulnerability," Kerr says. "In psychology and social science we know that many problems can arise from the same underlying cause."
In this case, Kerr and Capaldi believe the underlying cause could be a higher tendency to act impulsively. However, Kerr is quick to point out, correlation does not imply causation—in layman's terms, that means the data published online recently in the journal Psychological Medicine doesn't show that suicidal behavior in adolescence is the cause of later partner violence.
Still, the data has value because Kerr and Capaldi believe it shows the capacity to hurt oneself is a general risk that might also make one more likely to hurt others. And, because it was the action of attempting suicide that was necessary for the correlation, impulsivity seems to be a key factor that could be crucial to therapy for adults. (An estimated 142 teenage boys in Oregon tried to kill themselves in 2006—the most recent year available—according to the state health department.)
Capaldi says impulsivity seems to play a role in a wide range of negative behaviors from delinquency to engaging in sexually risky behavior, and that therapy targeting the root cause of those problems might help many related behavioral issues.
It remains uncertain what form this therapy directed at impulsivity might take. At its core, impulsivity is a response to a stressful situation—acting without thinking when under distress, Kerr says.
"I can see someone who is trying to have power and control over their partner doing what they need to do to keep power and control over their partner," says Amy Gettings, Clinical Services Director at the Domestic Violence Resource Center in Hillsboro. "And acting impulsively could be part of that.
Capaldi is especially interested in the effects of factors like stress and health on couples' relationships. Kerr is particularly interested in identifying the long-term outcomes of being a suicidal person, along with what predicts suicidal thoughts and behavior.