Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Is it the economy, really?

An alternate explanation for familicide

As the summer began, a group of researchers and policy analysts gathered to discuss the growing problem termed "familicide" - cases involving a husband and father killing his family and then himself. Each report has been getting stored somewhere in the back of my mind, and I suppose it says something about the number of incidents that the details of each individual case have become quite blurry.

Up until now, I've noticed one angle of these stories, the suicide angle. In most of the publicized cases, a distraught husband has been pushed to his limits by financial turmoil. But, the group of experts convened by the National Institute of Justice to better understand this issue and plan for prevention identified another angle: domestic violence.

It turns out that the greatest risk factor for familicide is a history of domestic violence.

"Of course," I thought as I read the article recounting the meeting of experts. I have worked in violence prevention for a number of years, with a good chunk of time spent specifically working in domestic and intimate partner violence programs. I know that someone who needs to have a lot of control in a relationship often needs to have a lot of control in other areas of life, and that the perception that one is losing control can be the tipping point leading to an act of violence. I know that, unfortunately, the partners and children of people who need to have control suffer when things feel out of control.

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Yet, until now, I hadn't thought of these incidents as related to domestic violence -because they had been framed in the media as fallout from the economic downturn. So, I have to wonder, how do most people, who don't spend their days thinking about violence and injury, think about these incidents?

From a prevention standpoint, I wonder what effect media framing has on the solutions we perceive. What power does the story gain or lose when framed as an issue of domestic violence? What about if the media lens focused more intently on suicide? Would the stories still be front-page news if the angle was domestic violence or suicide?

Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior, not one single incident. So, the outcome that we hear about with familicide - the murder of a family and the suicide of a husband and father - may have underneath it a long history of smaller events that are not newsworthy. Like suicide, which we hear about as an "event," there are multiple places along the way where prevention is a real possibility. But, if we just blame the economy for these events, we might gloss over the fact that not everyone who experiences a financial loss or sudden unemployment kills his family and himself. Covering the story as economic crisis fallout doesn't allow a reporter to ask what factors have been protective for those people who have experienced these kinds of losses and not resorted to violence.

The experts convened by the National Institute of Justice identified some strategies for familicide prevention that overlap with strategies for suicide prevention.

For one, access to means is critical. As this article states, "It is easier to be impulsive when a gun is nearby." Greater collaboration between agencies that may work with individuals or families who are at risk for suicide/familicide may help get supports in place that may prevent suicide/familicide, ranging from individual therapy, to creating a safety plan for escalating violence, to financial assistance. Bystanders (in domestic violence parlance), or gatekeepers (in suicide prevention lingo) are also an important piece of the puzzle, as individuals who can notice the signs for suicide/familicide and provide personal support and referrals to those at risk.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Linda Sobottka for bringing my awareness to this side of the story.

Copyright 2009 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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