When parents kill children; WITNESS

What motivates suicides to destroy their families, asks Tony Black
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The Independent Online
Destroying one's children, in the dramatic manner of the case this weekend when a father and his sons jumped from a third-floor window, signals mental distress or disorder of the most severe kind, particularly when immediately followed by comprehensive self-destruction. This is not the cri de coeur of the attempted suicide, and is of a different order from child-beating or molesting, dreadful though these may also be and which may sometimes also result in death.

So what are the motives for child-killing as a prelude to suicide? Contrary to what one might think, callousness or lack of love for children is not a factor. The opposite often applies. A consuming and devoted love for them often characterises the suicide who also kills his or her own children. This devouring care can inject a catastrophic life event with the elements that drive someone to believe that only death can being peace and the resolution of their problems. Problems may be real or imagined, loosely rooted in reality or totally removed from it. Hence the frequent accompaniment of any or several of such life crises as marital breakdown, job loss, bereavement or illness - physical or mental. Intensity of caring, allied to an extreme crisis, or crises, tips such a person into the abyss of despair called "depression" for which the only solution seems to be to "self-destruct". And if this solution is chosen for oneself, it may also be the solution for other intensely loved family members: they cannot be left to suffer alone the impending crisis - the humiliation and disgrace - so the suicide takes them with him. Or her - for as many, or more, child- destroyers are women.

This stems from the especially close nature of the maternal relationship and is in contrast with other homicides where men greatly outnumber women.

Revenge is sometimes cited as a motive in this context, but is more likely to be taken by the man upon his partner, rather than the children. It is women who might take out their feelings of anger on their children, although their first choice for harm is more often their home.

Most people, however severe their tragedies, struggle through. It is a critical few who are vulnerable from quirks of their own disposition that interact with extremes of circumstance to produce tragic outcomes. When this happens, their experiences, or their view of them, can become bizarrely twisted, whether through a natural sequence of events or the distortions of a mental illness. Many depressives feature "psychotic" (ie irrational) experiences, such as believing they are contaminated by some virulent and disgraceful illness from which they and their loved ones can only be saved by death, when they will be free and clean in paradise. Depressed people often express feelings of deep unworthiness and guilt. By contrast, a typically schizophrenic-type delusion might take the form of believing that they and their family are being persecuted - maybe by some real agency, such as a government department, or some imaginary one, such as cosmic rays. Destruction of themselves and their family may then be the chosen escape, or even the way the deluded beliefs or the hallucinatory voices tell them they must go.

How do we know all this if people kill themselves as well as their children? In fact, a proportion fail in their suicide attempt; they survive, are rescued in time, or their resolve fails after killing a family member, maybe through the shock of the killing. A steady trickle among the admissions to special hospitals, such as Broadmoor, builds into a substantial sample over the years, so patterns can be discerned. If family and friends are aware of the potential dangers of intense caring with family problems, they may be able to intervene in time.

The writer is a former head of psychological services, Broadmoor.