I once knew a man, an intelligent man, a dangerous man, a man who acknowledged his mental health issues and experienced periods of depression. Although separated from his wife they shared a commitment to their two adult boys who had physical and sensory impairments. They provided for their care and were tireless advocates, ensuring the availability of services to promote the health and well-being of their sons.
The man confided in me one day that should his health deteriorate he would end his life and that of his two boys. It was a shocking and disturbing declaration, a statement of intent rather than a plea for help. It felt like a challenge, although I sensed that for him the outcome was inevitable. Whilst sensitive to privacy and confidentiality concerns, I relayed the information to senior management, believing respect for life outweighed all other considerations.
Let me say now, “Nothing justifies murder-suicide. No matter how angry or disillusioned or weary you are. Life is too precious to dispense with it, to throw it away.”
I didn’t doubt his concern for his boys. But he was unable to accept that anyone else could adequately provide for them in his absence. He saw himself as central to their ‘prosperity.’ He was their passport to a full and happy life. I reasoned with him, suggesting that, as parents, they had supported their boys throughout their life and had prepared them well for their adult years. It was important now, that they allow others to share some of the burden of the day to day care.
Despite being the recipient of generous support packages for his children he was critical of government departments and the services offered by disability providers. His exacting standards of care and supervision were never achievable within the current models of support casting him in the role of the outspoken detractor.
Several years later he was true to his word. Before his death, he wrote a stinging critique of disability services which he made available to the media. Government intransigence and inadequate service provision were the causes of his anger.
As I have reflected on this tragedy and read the available research I have come to understand that in a murder-suicide
- The perpetrator’s decision to kill himself is the primary factor
- The decision is always a product of mental illness
- The decision is almost always pre-meditated
- The decision may be seen as an act of violent mercy: a way to spare the victim (or victims) suffering in the wake of the suicide, as when a parent murders a child (or children)
- And, in this instance, the attempt to justify the decision by apportioning blame
Although murder-suicide occurs infrequently, media coverage is common as the events are confronting and not easily understood.
The suspected murder-suicide of a family in Sydney’s north recently received in-depth coverage. The report said the father had ordered a delivery of carbon monoxide several weeks previously.
Murder-suicide is one of the most difficult-to-comprehend types of violence in modern society. In Australia, homicides followed by the suicide of the perpetrator occur about twenty times each year.
Preventing murder-suicide is particularly difficult. Researchers suggest that
“The complexity and rarity of murder-suicide make it almost impossible to anticipate. Although prediction may not be possible, this should not discourage us from developing responses tailored towards high-risk groups and situations.”