Rash of Murder-Suicides Has Many Wondering Why They Happen

April 23, 2009 07:00 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Experts say it is hard to pin down exactly what motivates people to kill themselves after committing murder, though a handful of theories prevail.

Examining “Familicides”

Recently in Baltimore, Md., police found a family from Long Island dead in a hotel room from an apparent murder-suicide, according to The Associated Press. Not long before, news of another murder-suicide in which a father shot his wife and three children, and then killed himself, had been reported in the state.

Around the country, headlines have been describing a troubling occurrence of murder-suicide cases in recent months.

These situations have also appeared in Los Angeles and Santa Clara, Calif., and in Ohio.

According to the Violence Policy Center, a national nonprofit organization that studies violence in the United States, it can be difficult to trace murder-suicide cases. However, the organization estimates there were approximately nine cases per week in the first half of 2007.

The Violence Policy Center says such “familicides” are not common. “They were so rare that we didn’t really bother to count them as a separate category,” Kristen Rand, a legislative director for the center told the AP. Rand did cite “a clear rash” of these cases recently.
Understanding how such situations can occur is often difficult for relatives and friends of murder-suicide victims. Even experts can provide just general explanations of the common threads in such cases, according to Newsday.

The Violence Policy Center says 95 percent of murder-suicides are committed by men. Men are often possessive of their wives, and harm her “and everyone around her.” Others are the “despondent” type, believing they must kill their families and themselves to protect them from pain in life.
Other precipitating factors, like the loss of a job, financial hardship or long bouts of depression have also been detected.

Those experiencing depression might even blame their families for their situation, psychology professor Don Dutton told the Calgary Herald.

In Canada, psychology and family homicide experts note that mental illness is rarely the only reason familicides take place.

“People with major psychiatric disorders are scarcely more violent than the rest of the population,” neuroscience and behavior professor Martin Daly told the Calgary Herald. “Guys who off their whole family are typically not mentally ill. They’ve decided to do this over some period of brooding and made a plan.”

Related Topic: The copycat effect

“Since March 10, 2009, at least 43 people have been killed in murder-suicides, and there is no telling why the crimes occurred in such rapid succession,” Time writes. For all the reasons people offer as possible motivations for the killings, Steven Stack, a professor of psychiatry and criminal justice at Wayne State University, said “the copycat effect” may be a cause as well.

The copycat theory was developed after a slew of rapes and murders swept England following the Jack the Ripper crimes of the late 1800s. Research into copycat events—particularly copycat suicides—has been common ever since.

One analysis in 2005 indicated that there is some correlation between media coverage of suicide and the rate of suicides among the general public. “The more coverage of a suicide, the greater the number of copycat deaths.” Celebrity suicides tend to have a greater impact.

Stack is the only person to conduct a study of whether the occurrence of murder-suicides and ensuing media coverage are related to copycat crimes. His study, released 20 years ago, found no corresponding increase in homicide rates.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines