Conflicts with spouses, girlfriends, and boyfriends figure into more than one in five homicides and suicides in the U.S., according to a new report from federal researchers.

Data released Thursday by the CDC suggest suicide and homicide rates dropped between 2003 and 2004.

The report also shows that approximately 20 percent of homicides and 28 percent of suicides are preceded by a conflict with an intimate partner.

Researchers have long known that relationship conflicts play a strong role in the roughly 50,000 violent deaths in the U.S. each year. But new information indicates that those conflicts may be more important than previously thought.

“The connection is stronger than was suspected in some circles,” says Lawrence Barker, PhD, a CDC epidemiologist who co-authored the report.

The government has long collected information on causes of death, including suicide and homicide. Thursday’s report is based on new reporting methods that allow officials to record not just the manner of death but also the personal circumstances surrounding a violent death.

The report includes data from seven states, and the CDC is now collecting numbers from 17 others, officials there said.

Identifying Risk

The report also showed that nearly half of all suicide victims displayed a depressed mood prior to the act, according to family and friends.

The findings are among the first to quantify what researchers have suspected -- that untreated mental health problems may play as large a role as diagnosed mental diseases in suicide.

“That has been a supposition but has never really been shown,” says M. David Rudd, a suicide researcher and chair of the department of psychology at Texas Tech University.

The distinction points to the vital role family and friends play in identifying suicide warnings signs in loved ones that may never come to the attention of a doctor, Rudd says.

Newly published studies conducted by Rudd and other researchers found nearly 3,300 so-called “suicide predictors” listed across 200 sites on the Internet.

They included isolation or withdrawal, increased use of alcohol or drugs, reckless behavior, talking about suicide or death, giving away prized possessions, decreased performance in school, and changes in eating patterns or weight.

But actual predictors are far more limited, Rudd says. Outward signs of depression -- including anger, withdrawal, increase in drug or alcohol use, or dramatic mood changes -- are more verifiably strong predictors of potential suicidal behavior.

Stronger still is any talk by a loved one that he or she is considering or planning self-harm. Up to 85 percent of all victims voice their plans to others before attempting suicide.

“There’s still somewhat of a myth that people who talk about suicide don’t commit suicide,” says Rudd.

Homicide and Mugging

Thursday’s study also showed that close to one-third of all homicides were preceded by another crime, usually mugging.

“Right there we have an interesting and addressable factor in preventing homicides. Lowering mugging rate could lower homicide rate,” Barker says.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Homicides and Suicides: National Violent Death Reporting System, United States, 2003-2204, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, July 6, 2006. Lawrence Barker, PhD, epidemiologist, CDC. Warning Signs for Suicide on the Internet: a Descriptive Study. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, June 2006. A Test of the Effectiveness of a List of Suicide Warning Signs for the Public. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, June 2006. M. David Rudd, PhD, professor and chair, department of psychology, Texas Tech University.