Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Economic Factor in the Rash of Murder-Suicides

The author examines the economic factor in recent murder-suicides

The average number of murder-suicides in a given year in the U.S. is 1,000 to 1,500 according to the Violence Policy Center. Because they have been so rare in the past, the numbers of whole family murder-suicides (familicides) have not been counted and therefore are unknown. Ninety-five percent of all murder-suicides are male-on-female crimes; the majority take place following a threatened break-up by the female wife or partner. According to Jacqueline Campbell who has conducted extensive interviews with the families of victims of domestic homicide, access to guns and male unemployment are key risk factors involved. If suicidal ideation is present, the result likely will be a murder-suicide.

Today we have a rash of murder-suicides, as a google search of this topic instantly reveals. Since the Recession of 2008, the numbers of familicides are unprecedented. Before exploring the economic factor in these and other forms of homicide-suicide, I want to look at domestic violence in general and at how underlying psychological insecurity may predispose certain individuals to react to personal crises in highly destructive ways.

Psychiatrist James Gilligan, author of Violence: Reflections on a Mass Epidemic has studied why some men want to establish absolute control over their wives and partners. "I can only conclude their desire for omnipotence," he writes. "is in direct proportion to their feeling of impotence." Following Gilligan, I argue that batterers' underlying sense of powerlessness, insecurity, and extreme emotional dependence on their partners is the root of the violent outbursts that they inflict upon others.

In murder-suicide cases, the mere threat of a break-up may be enough to trigger a desire to "end it all". This extreme behavior is an example of all-or-nothing thinking such as predominates in the minds of persons who commit suicide following a sense of failure. We can infer this from their decision to destroy themselves and their loved ones when a major crisis occurs.

The Economic Factor
Unemployment rates today are staggering, especially if you consider all the people who have stopped looking and don't count in the statistics. These rates are reflected in the unprecedented numbers of housing foreclosures across the United States. In Michigan and Nevada, states in which the impact of the recession is in strong evidence, newspaper accounts describe multiple cases of murder-suicide. In Las Vegas, for example, August 2010 saw five murder-suicides. Victims' families blamed the killings on financial stress. In the Lansing area of Michigan, three family murder-suicides took place over a 14-month period.

Sociologist Neil Webscale has recently written a book on familicide, From his study of over 100 cases, his conclusion is that depression plus a personal sense of shame and failure plays a pivotal role in taking the male family member over the edge. Employment difficulties are pronounced in the backgrounds of the perpetrators in those cases. Interestingly, around half of the family murder-suicides were carried out by men with no known history of domestic abuse. Typically these men had been successful members of the community who found their lives unraveling. Investigation into their backgrounds showed that these husbands and fathers were often in situations of seemingly insurmountable economic crisis.

One of the most tragic murder-suicides that I describe in Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and the Murder-Suicides bears this out. In this case from 2008, a former bank vice president committed suicide by crashing his van after killing his wife and four children with a baseball bat. The perpetrator, Steven Sueppel, was facing trial for embezzlement of over half a million dollars from the bank.

Although this case stood apart in Iowa, many of the family murder-suicides tend to cluster, a factor probably related to contagion. The pattern that we see, therefore, is of a psychologically vulnerable man who is overwhelmed by a sense of personal shame in his failure to provide for his family. Based on his warped and depressed reasoning, he decides they are all better off dead. As economic stress mounts, because we are a nation with a weak system of social supports, we can expect the wave of family murder-suicides to continue.