News headlines over the weekend spoke of tragedy.
In Kelso, in rural NSW, police discovered the bodies of well-known local couple Elie Issa and Nadia Cameron. Meanwhile, in Mayfield, Chicago, a family of three were found fatally shot.
Although murder-suicides are relatively uncommon; comprising just 3% of all homicide events in Australia between 2008 and 2010, they are unspeakably devastating for all involved.
Unlike most homicide cases, in which victims’ families can find some solace in the perpetrator facing a lengthy prison sentence, murder-suicides offer no reprieve to the loved ones of those killed.
Instead, families and friends are left in anguish; struggling to understand how such a tragic act could have occurred – and questioning whether it could have been prevented.
Now, researchers have identified several risk factors which are common to murder-suicide cases, hoping that a better understanding of the ‘red flags’ may prevent future tragedies.
Understanding Murder Suicides
Murder-suicides refer to homicides where the perpetrator takes his or her life less than 24 hours after killing their victim.
Most laws and policies revolve around treating murder and suicide as two separate and unrelated issues: murder is seen as a cruel and callous act which deserves punishment under the law, while those at risk of suicide are treated as having underlying mental health concerns which require immediate attention.
In cases of murder-suicides, these two issues intersect; giving rise to a complex problem which experts struggle to comprehend, let alone address.
The Red Flags
Studies which have sought to understand the reasons behind murder-suicides have identified several risk factors.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, the typical perpetrator is a Caucasian male, aged in his 40’s, who is employed at the time.
The vast majority of murder-suicides involve a male perpetrator killing his partner and/or children, but in a smaller number of cases, the offender is a woman – with the victims almost exclusively her children.
These characteristics might suggest that cases primarily occur within the context of domestic or family violence – but experts warn that this is not always the case.
A closer look at the statistics reveals that ‘a history of domestic violence or unemployment were less prevalent in homicide-suicides than in… [straight] homicides’.
Despite this finding, other studies suggest that those who commit murder-suicides are most likely to have a current family violence order against them – and be in the midst of a child custody dispute.
In other cases, financial and/or employment stress appears to be a contributing factor.
An assessment of a number of cases revealed that most offenders appeared to be reacting adversely to some kind of major life event.
This is believed to be the case behind the tragic Lockhart murder-suicide last year, in which farmer Greg Hunt shot and killed his wife and three children, before turning the gun on himself.
An inquest heard that Mr Hunt struggled to cope after his wife sustained a brain injury in a car accident, which left her with a broken neck, post-traumatic amnesia, and struggling to walk and talk.
Family members said that after the accident, Mr Hunt assumed the role of the family’s sole carer and provider, and that he was under ‘immense stress’ at the time of the tragedy.
This does not, of course, mean that everyone who experiences a significant and negative life event or crisis will go on to kill their partner or children.
Rather, it is simply a matter that may help experts, family members and friends identify those most at risk so that they can intervene before it is too late.
How Should We Treat Perpetrators?
While these incidents are often marred by tragedy, the issue of how we should treat surviving offenders in murder suicides is hotly debated.
Following the tragic deaths of the Hunt family last year, former federal MP Phil Cleary spoke out against giving sympathy to perpetrators of murder-suicides, calling them ‘patriarchal murders.’
Mr Cleary expressed the view that giving men like Greg Hunt attention in the media shows that women are still treated as ‘commodities to be controlled by a man.’ He said that murder-suicides are a ‘disgraceful act that we should condemn.’
It is easy to see why some might agree with Mr Cleary’s views: the tragic and unprovoked killing of a woman and three innocent children rouses emotions of disgust and anger in most people.
But condemning these acts offers little comfort to family members of those affected.
While there is no excuse for killing a loved-one, criticising or condemning those who commit these acts does little to prevent incidents from occurring in the future.
Rather, murder-suicides should be used to raise public awareness about the prevalence of mental illness in the community, to help families identify risk factors and intervene, and to encourage those who are experiencing stressful situations to seek help.