Caroline Flack’s Suicide And What It Has Taught Us About Public Attitudes Towards Domestic Abuse

All suicide is tragic.  And this post is not to pass commentary on the who, why, what’s and wherefore’s of what happened leading up to Caroline Flacks actions on Saturday 15th February 2020.  But rather to highlight the realities of what this can teach us about public opinion of domestic abuse and how that can impact decisions for both parties within an abusive relationship.


Caroline was going to face court for assault which was domestic abuse as it was an incident between two people in a relationship.  We don’t and can’t know what happened between them. What we do know is that the CPS felt they had enough evidence to take the case to court and it was in the public interest to do so.  For reasons only Caroline herself knows, she took the decision to end her life before getting a fair trial.


What I want to do is to look at the public’s reaction to this event and compare it to what I work with on a daily basis.  I am not writing this post to be controversial or jump on the bandwagon. I simply want to highlight that Caroline’s story is one which I work with on a daily basis and so it would be neglectful of my clients to not be a voice for them here..


“Just an argument with her boyfriend” 


If a person in the street suddenly punched you in the face how would you feel?  Most of us would take issue. So when a person you love does that, what changes?  This is the reality of domestic violence.


Domestic abuse is never to be belittled. More than that we can’t possibly understand the dynamics of their relationship because we are not in it. So many people stay in abusive relationships because they fear not being believed.  This type of statement confirms that fear for them.


I also fear that this is indicative of gender differences in terms of how domestic abuse is viewed.  There is still a view that only women can be victims of domestic abuse despite the growing evidence that the number of male victims is increasing year on year. This view does nothing to help either gender and completely ignores the many complex reasons domestic abuse occurs.  Having worked in child protection and with domestic abuse charities as well as having personal experience of domestic abuse and coercive control, I understand that chaotic relationships are never as simple as one bad guy, one good guy. When we make those sorts of assumptions, we are missing out on opportunities to take the time to understand. The view of a drunk husband coming home and battering his wife is outdated and society’s view needs to change too.


“ITV didn’t sack Ant McPartlin and Geoffrey Boycott got an OBE”


In the interest of a balanced discussion, I do want to address the perceived difference in the treatment Caroline received compared to these male counterparts.  I do think that ITV had a duty to act following her arrest but my understanding is that Caroline herself stepped down. What would have happened had she been found guilty (as McPartlin and Boycott were) we will never know.  However, I would like to make the point that people are more than one act. Ant and Geoffrey are well respected in their fields, they are friends and sons and husbands, and I personally do not feel that one incident detracts from that.  I understand their crimes are serious but if we wrote people off and effectively erased their achievements when they fuck up, are we not sending a clear message that suicide IS the only answer? Perhaps this is how Caroline felt. That this would haunt her forever.  I personally would like to believe that she would have been shown the same amount of forgiveness and acceptance as these men. But we will never know now.


What is the right solution in these situations? There is a petition calling for it to be a criminal offence for the British Press to “knowingly and relentlessly bully a person, whether they be in the public eye or not, up to the point that they take their own life” in the wake of this. I do understand why people feel the press played a part but I also think it is important to remember that there are so many different factors involved in why someone takes their own life and it would be almost impossible for it to be proven that the actions of the press “caused” the actions of an individual.  That takes away personal responsibility and choice. The press does have a duty to report and people do read these stories in papers and magazines. It’s hard to argue which came first – the story or the desire of the public to read about it.  


Also domestic abuse is a behaviour which has many different causes.  Just as any behaviour does. Is the woman who killed her children because she was mentally ill more or less guilty than the man who killed a child in a hit and run because he was over the legal limit for alcohol but was drinking because he was mentally ill?  Usually when there is socially unacceptable behaviour (murder, rape, domestic abuse, assault) there is some form of mental health issue. Understanding that can help with treatment and more importantly prevention. The same with suicide. If we simplify the reasons for someone taking their lives, we are likely to miss the answer to how to prevent this moving forward.


Finally public perception of crime is not always based on fact but on emotion and Caroline’s story is very emotive.  Because you felt like you knew her. But punishment is objective. Based on facts. And we simply do not know all of the facts so therefore it is impossible to propose a punishment.  In many ways, the public change in perception of individuals involved in these cases is a significant punishment in itself. Having people, strangers, making judgements about you, is incredibly painful. On top of that, it changes how they view themselves.  Many abusers exhibit very low self esteem and high self loathing which can cause or exacerbate mental health problems. The same is true for victims.  


“Ex has blood on his hands”


Again we don’t know what went on but if Lewis Burton was hit on the head during a row he is a victim and blaming the victim for the actions of the perpetrator is unacceptable. So many victims get told that they must have done something to deserve it.  Both by society, friends, professionals and their ex. They are constantly made to feel that they are in some way to blame. If they just hadn’t done or said X, Y or Z. Even if Lewis did do or say something wrong, no-one deserves to be abused. Guilt is often what keeps people in relationships.  Victims can feel like they haven’t done enough to help. That they must be the problem because they aren’t like it with anyone else. “Everyone else thinks they are wonderful so it must be me.” Part of their journey to recovery is accepting that we are all responsible for our own actions. The abuser is responsible for theirs.  Letting go of the need to rescue them and accept all responsibility can be hard. It’s a conditioned behaviour, often from childhood, and many victims believe that in order for them to receive love, they must please others. If someone isn’t pleased, it must be their fault. It’s a vicious cycle but one that can be broken. 


The reasons people make these decisions are complex and usually multifaceted. It is impossible to say it was the exes fault, the media’s fault, ITV’s fault or anyone else for that matter.  Only Caroline knows why she felt this was the best option.But she isn’t alone in this. Around one-in-eight of all suicides and suicide attempts by women in the UK are due to domestic abuse according to statistics (The Guardian May 2019).  A Cambridge research programme in A&E found that women who self-harmed were 75 times more likely to have suffered partner abuse  and men who self-harmed were over twice as likely to have suffered partner abuse. The psychological toll of domestic abuse is extremely high. 


90% of people who die by suicide have a mental health condition at the time of their death


In the work I do, many abusers, particularly those with abandonment issues, use the threat of suicide to keep their victims from leaving.  Suicide can be, and I am not saying it is in this situation, but it can be the ultimate act of control and manipulation. Leaving the victim with the guilt. 


The point I am making in all of this is that to blame one person (or entity) ignores the many different factors which influence someone’s decision to take their own life.  We don’t know what risk factors Caroline experienced, or understand her view of herself or her resilience or her support networks. There are just too many unknowns to simply say it is down to one thing and one thing alone.  If we hope to prevent suicide, it’s important we understand this.


“He didn’t want to pursue the charges” 


This is so common because victims are fearful and so they return to the abuser, begging police not to press charges for fear of the repercussions.  It takes a lot of courage to go through with pursuing charges. The victim may not be ready to end the relationship or may feel pressure from family, friends and the abuser to drop the charges.  The reality here is that IF Caroline did abuse Lewis, she was facing losing her career and reputation. The guilt of that could have been too much for Lewis or perhaps Caroline put pressure on him to drop the charges.  We simply do not know. But his behaviour is not uncommon.


domestic abuse prosecutions

More than 160,000 victims of domestic violence in England withdrew their support for charges against their abusers in 2016 (The Independent, 2017)


(source: The Daily Mail)


Lord Ken McDonald, former director of public prosecutions stated:

‘Most of the pressure groups around domestic violence are very voluble in saying the CPS should be building cases that don’t rely just on victim testimony.’ 


We could therefore assume that there must have been sufficient evidence from other sources for the CPS to be going ahead with a trial.  If we, as a society, want to tackle domestic abuse, we have to be consistent with our approach.  


“Innocent until proven guilty” 


I absolutely agree that this should be our stance on issues where we have no first hand experience of what went on.  But the reality is that we live in a society where people need an answer when something they are struggling to comprehend happens.  And the media feeds into that. The truth is we’re not very good at figuring out the causes of other people’s behavior and, as humans, it’s our default to always look for a cause.  Blaming someone else is an easy solution to both of these.  


Unless you have witnessed the abuse first hand, it is impossible to know the truth of a situation no matter how much you think you know the person/people involved.  Many abusive people use others to spread the false allegations and, in the work I do, engage police, domestic abuse charities, social services and court to further punish their ex. In my own situation, I only ever talked publicly about the abuse I experienced and reported, not what I was told from others.  As observers, it is easy to get caught up in the experience. Someone tells you their side of the story, encourages you to sympathise with them and before long you are sharing the story with your friends and family.  


False allegations are seemingly on the rise and can be incredibly damaging to someone’s life.  Once an allegation is made, it seems to obtain a life of its own, shared amongst family and friends, employers, police, teachers.  With court cases taking months to reach trial, it can put an enormous burden on the individual accused when the allegations are false.  People judging them without knowing the whole story and coming to conclusions about the type of person they must be. When their are children involved, it can lead to them having contact stopped.  So imagine that you had a row with your partner or ex, you find yourself called into the police station being accused of assault or domestic abuse, you try to tell your side of the story but are instead handed a non-molestation order and ordered to stay away from your ex and the children.  Your employer finds out, they suspend you and now you have no income. You could lose your job, your home and your children. Your friends try to be supportive but you can see they are looking at you differently. Your family are getting stick from their neighbours and the community. The children get referred to professionals so they can talk about it.  How would that feel? Seeing your whole life flipped upside down. Cut off from your children and ostracised by your employer, friends and sometimes family. This is parental alienation and it’s easy to see why suicide becomes a valid option.  


If one good thing comes out of this tragedy, wouldn’t it be nice if we all were able to respect the “innocent until proven guilty” rhetoric?


Final thoughts


Everyone views this from a different perspective. Caroline came across as being a “girl next door” kind of character. Everyone appeared to like her and she was very relatable.  Perhaps you could imagine yourself being friends with her or even felt that she was a lot like you. It can be really hard to then accept that she is capable of hurting another person because it would make you question your own view of yourself.  If she can do something like this, could you? It may therefore be easier to minimize the behaviour or even justify it. It’s perfectly natural and is a sign of empathy. However, true empathy is when we can see the situation from all sides and still be compassionate.


From another perspective, if you have experienced domestic abuse, you may feel angry with all the sympathy Caroline is receiving.  If you have had allegations made against you which were false, you may feel incredibly sympathetic towards her as you recognise in yourself how close you have come to suicide.  If your family member has chosen to end their life, you may feel guilty and even angry that she didn’t turn to someone for help. 


What we can learn


Caroline’s story (or what we know) is complex.  Domestic abuse is complex. Mental Health is complex. Suicide is complex. The response to her story is very indicative of many views held by society which is what I was seeking to address.  


The key points which I think we can learn are:


  1. Domestic abuse is rarely “just an argument” and belittling violence into those terms is dangerous.
  2. Men and women can be victims of domestic abuse – one in four women, one in 6 men are reported to be victims
  3. People are more than their mistakes and if we fail to see that are we advocating for suicide?
  4. The press has a duty to report and the public consumes the information. If you disagree with this type of reporting, think about how you consume information yourself and how you can make changes
  5. Mental health is misunderstood and there is still a stigma around it.  The more we understand it, the better we are equipped to deal with ourselves, others and the inevitable difficulties which crop up in life
  6. Rather than looking to blame anyone, focus on understand the reasons behind it
  7. Victim shaming and blaming is never OK
  8. Mental health, domestic abuse and suicide are inextricably linked.  We need to understand each individually as well as how they impact one another to prevent more tragedies
  9. We need a consistent approach to dealing with domestic abuse
  10. We should all assume innocent until proven guilty, regardless of our feelings on the matter
  11. Empathy and compassion is so important


My personal hope is that Caroline’s tragic death has opened the door to having real conversations about domestic abuse in households across the UK and abroad as well as within parliament buildings. This is where change will come and hopefully change lives and opinions. 


What’s your thoughts on this situation and domestic abuse? Have you experienced anything similar?