Mother who lost husband and children appeals for society not to sweep murder suicide under the carpet

A mother who lost her two young daughters and husband in a murder suicide has said today that people and society "have a right to know" how often these tragedies are happening, writes David Raleigh.

Una Butler’s husband John Butler, who had been receiving treatment for depression, took his own life after he killed daughters, Ella (2) and Zoe (6), in the family home, in Ballycotton, Co Cork, on November 16, 2010.

Speaking at a symposium on media coverage of mental health stories, organised by the Journalism Department at the University of Limerick, Ms Butler called for accurate and sensitive reporting of murder suicide cases.

John Butler with one of his children  

“I can understand that people just cannot comprehend or don’t want to read about it and that it why it is so important that when murder suicide cases are being reported on that it should be reported accurately and in a sensitive manner - no sensationalising, no glamorising of the events,” Ms Butler explained.

"The media have and are in a powerful position on how they report anything in general, but in particular with murder suicide accurate reporting is essential. People and society have a right to know how often these cases are happening,” she added.

Ms Butler who has advocated for reform of the Mental Health Act since the tragic deaths of her family, believes her children would "still be alive" had she been involved in her husband’s treatment.

She said she "turned to the media" in seeking a detailed investigation into her husband’s treatment.

"I engaged with the media following the murder suicide of my husband John and daughters, Ella and Zoe in 2010. After their deaths I received a two-page report from the HSE which was inadequate and an insult."

"I called for a detailed investigation into his treatment from the HSE and also wanted the Mental Health Act 2001 to be amended to include spouses or partners in the treatment of the family member suffering with their mental health to help prevent further cases from happening and also especially for the welfare of children."

Looking back on the horrific incident, she said: "I should have been involved. The medical professionals would have had greater insights into (John’s) behaviour’s."

"It’s a known fact actually, that patients aren’t even asked if they want to involve a family member, because it’s not standard practice," she added.

"I believe Zoe and Ella would be alive today. My husband (had) never hurt me; He was suffering with a psychiatric illness." "I believe had I been involved in his treatment...he may have been treated differently. I should have been educated about his illness and known what to do; I hadn’t been told."

"I hadn’t been told (about) the effects of his medication or how he would react after that."

She added: "Why is a person treated in isolation? - They’re not living in isolation, and the family are there to support them."

"It’s an awful tragedy when a child dies through an illness, but when a child has been murdered by a parent it’s just unnatural," she explained.

“The bottom line is that which ever way you look at the previous cases of murder suicide in Ireland the past twenty years or so, the mental health of the perpetrator is a major factor”.

Una Butler

She added: "Going through the murder suicides that have happened in Ireland in the past 15/20 years, the statistics don’t lie; in over 60% of the cases the perpetrator had a psychiatric illness."

Ms Butler argued that while the media has an important role in reporting murder suicides, she said she believes reporting on funerals was "sensationalising a tragedy and glamourising who was at the funeral".

"That is my personal opinion; I don’t think (a funeral) is any place for the media to be."

She added, if families ask for privacy, then "it should be respected".

"At the time of my (childrens’) funeral the media were asked to keep their distance, and in fairness to them they kept their distance, because we didn’t allow recording of the mass or anything like that, at the time," she said.

Reiterating that the media has an important role to play, Ms Butler added: "I do think that because I spoke out in the media an investigation did happen. I also think that it raised awareness of how often murder suicide is happening in Ireland."

"Ultimately, I went public and used the media because I thought and still believe that my family tragedy could have been prevented, had I been involved in my husband’s treatment, my children should be alive! that is the bottom line."

Last year, Ms Butler found through her own research, that 27 cases of murder-suicides had occurred in Ireland since 2000, including the murders of 32 children, as well as 11 partners or spouse.

Professor Jane Singer from City University in London also presented a keynote address on the challenges of ethics in practice in journalism at the UL event which was organised by the journalism department at the University of Limerick.

Other speakers included Professor Ella Arensman, from the National Suicide Research Foundation Claire Sheeran, from Headline, the national media monitoring programme for mental health and suicide and Sean Donlon, The Chairman of the Press Council Seán Donlon spoke about the challenges and responsibilities of the media in the reporting of mental health related stories.

Journalism lecturer Audrey Galvin, whose PhD study focuses on the ethical framing of murder suicide stories said the primary focus at the event was to look at when mental health discussion in the media is part of news events which affect the wider populace, for example murder suicides.

“Part of that examination involves asking if the way in which journalists use sources, imagery and language, for example, perpetuate stereotypes, fear and misinformation? What ethical framework or guidelines can journalists who are under time and resources pressures use, when approaching such stories?"

“Conversely, there is without doubt a public interest in the area of mental health and in particular murder suicides, is it time, we now consider these phenomena as a societal problem, rather than individual. Here, the media have a large role to play. "

Fergal Quinn, Journalism subject leader went on to say he was pleased to have hosted this event on what is a hugely important topic.

"I think the willingness and quality of those who have offered to contribute demonstrates that it is an issue that is uppermost in the minds of those interested in journalism practice.”

“A big part of what we try and do here in journalism@ul is facilitate a meaningful discussion between academics, practitioners and those affected by issues being examined.”

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