Society must stop attributing familicide to mental health factors alone and recognise it as unacceptable child murder, writes Paul Gilligan

The deaths of the Hawe family and in particular of the three boys Niall, Ryan, and Liam, have caused shock and disbelief across the country.

Over the last 18 years, more than 36 children in Ireland have been killed by their parents, and while there are no international comparators, the deputy state pathologist Michael Curtis reacting to one such death commented that “he was struck by the numbers of murder-suicides in families in Ireland since he took up his position in 2004”.

In the aftermath of such deaths, we focus on trying to understand how a loving parent could have become so desperate, despondent or angry that he could not only take his own life, but also the lives of his children and wife?

We inevitably focus on this parent’s mental health and emotional state and attribute their actions to mental health difficulties.

But finding true understanding and achieving psychological resolution for such horrendous acts and most importantly preventing these types of deaths from occurring in the future requires us to be more honest about the factors that underpin them.

At the core of this understanding is the parent’s attitudes and beliefs about their children. Those like Alan Hawe who carry out such acts might be greatly distressed, but alongside this distress, must carry a belief that their children cannot or should not live without them, that if they cannot have their children, then nobody else will have them, or that it is in some way justifiable to take out their anger on their children.

A note left with flowers outside the home of the Hawe family, who died in a suspected murder-suicide. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
A note left with flowers outside the home of the Hawe family, who died in a suspected murder-suicide. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

There has to be a belief that a child is a possession, a possession for which decisions should be made, a possession which can be treated as adults wish to treat it.

This belief has been at the centre of most of the failings by Irish society of children since the founding of the State, and has underpinned most of the child abuse scandals emerging over the last number of years. The killing of a child, whether it be by a parent or by a person who then takes their own life is the worst form of child abuse.

It is inaccurate and deeply stigmatising to attribute such acts to having mental health difficulties alone.

Research conducted by a Sligo IT-based researcher in 2013 indicted that most parents who committed such crimes did not have a history of previous psychiatric illness and that drugs or drink were not a factor.

People who experience mental health difficulties often feel great despair, hopelessness and anger and some decide to take their own lives. But even at these times of great psychological turmoil, 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.

The nature of these types 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.

For surviving parents, relatives and friends, being able to be honest about the true factors underpinning such horrendous acts is also vital. They need to be given the permission and support to acknowledge that they too were the victims of a terrible act, the responsibility for which lies with the person or persons who committed the act.

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Preventing such acts is extremely difficult. We need to tackle, at a societal level, our attitudes and beliefs about children. We need to start this process within the education system, but we also need to engage in public education and awareness-raising campaigns encouraging honest debate about how we view and treat children.

The continued placing of children in adult mental health facilities or with foster parents who have not been properly vetted, reflects a disregard for children’s welfare and rights, a disregard that is at some level accepted by all levels of society.

Niall, Ryan and Liam, had a right to life. For them, we need to have an honest conversation about the factors that caused their deaths and how we can better protect our children.

We need to stop attributing familicide 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.

Clinical psychologist Paul Gilligan is CEO of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, and author of Raising Emotionally Healthy Children

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