THIS is a tragedy and we don’t know the circumstances or facts as yet.
There is a real danger that in an attempt to try and understand how this could happen, we immediately attribute these children’s deaths to mental health factors as we have done in other similar cases, including those which have later emerged as being so-called “murder-suicides.”
Even if it emerges that the perpetrator of these murders had a mental health illness history, it is inaccurate and deeply stigmatising to attribute such acts to mental health difficulties alone.
People who experience mental health difficulties often feel great despair and hopelessness and some decide to take their own lives. But even at these times of great despair, few decide to kill another person. Sometimes, rash, impulsive actions by those experiencing mental health distress can lead to unintended consequences, like the death of another family member, and sometimes a person with a serious mental health difficulty is so detached from reality that they lack the mental capacity to know what they are doing.
However, the nature of murder-suicides is different, involving a great deal more premeditation and planning.
Suicide is usually a self-punitive, violent act, which contrasts with violent acts that punish others. These extra punitive acts are not typically associated with mental health difficulties. These children’s parents must also be given the support and reinforcement of knowing that they are the victims of a terrible act, the responsibility for which lies with the perpetrator. What these tragic events highlight is that there is a need to tackle, at a societal level, our attitudes and beliefs about children. And to ensure our child protection systems pick up situations where children are at risk.
We need to stop attributing familicide, murder-suicides, to mental health factors alone and recognise it as child murder, unacceptable no matter who perpetrates it. We need to create a society that truly values children, that treats them as citizens with rights and capacities, a society that does not tolerate any form of child abuse. Paul Gilligan is chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin
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