From Vegas to Columbine to Workplace Violence: Understanding the Complexities Surrounding Murder-Suicide

In the aftermath of the October 1st, 2017 massacre in Las Vegas, which left 58 people dead and more than 500 others injured, we have more questions than answers, and we are wondering -- even more than usual –- what would drive someone to do that?

The Dangers of Scapegoating

Mass shootings like this are deeply upsetting, and thus we run to scapegoat and blame the outcome on an easy target – mental illness. This all-too-common narrative drives people who are living with deteriorating mental health back into the closet for fear that others will make assumptions about their ability to commit such violent atrocities. Eduardo Vega puts it like this, “prejudicial attitudes and discrimination that make us more unhealthy and insecure as a culture, by laying blame at the foot of a group of Americans that is seen as voiceless or powerless…. we cannot let ourselves be distracted by the convenient fiction that mental illness is to blame for mass violence. Or take that idea into practice in the form of coercion, psychiatric profiling and discriminatory policies that will drive more people to isolation and despair.”

How Common are Murder-Suicides?

Murder-suicides—the murder of one or more individuals followed by the perpetrator’s suicide—are rare, especially mass shootings – despite how often we hear about them in the media. A more common form murder-suicide than the mass shooting scenario is the murder-suicide that occurs as the end result of domestic violence.

For example, on June 28th, 2016 people ran out of the brick building in downtown Denver, through the parking lot, with their hands above their heads. Office buildings in the surrounding area immediately went on lock-down; gunshots had been reported. Slowly, the facts began to emerge: Fifty-two-year-old Cara Russell had been shot in her office by her estranged husband, Mickey Russell, before he turned the gun on himself. Cara died of her injuries hours later.

In his comprehensive book, The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide, published in 2014, suicidologist Dr. Thomas Joiner estimated that two percent of suicide deaths in the United States are homicide-suicides. Most perpetrators of murder-suicide—more than 90 percent—are men, while 75 percent of the victims are female. The majority of homicide-suicides are spousal. 

Suicide is Primary -- Motives are a "Perversion of Virtue"

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Research is scarce in this area, but we do know that suicide is a primary factor in homicide-suicides. The perpetrator desires to die, and every subsequent action he takes stems from that basic fact. In his twisted, confused mind, the victim’s life is “the final barrier to suicide,” writes Joiner. From the outside, murder-suicide appears to be the direct result of jealousy or anger. But Joiner says that is not usually the case. To the suicidal person, it’s an (admittedly perverse) virtuous act. Joiner’s typology highlights four virtues: mercy, justice, duty, and glory. The first three are representative of the perpetrator’s perspective that he is preventing the victim(s) from suffering from his suicide, killing her so she doesn’t have to grieve or won’t be left alone. Intimate partner and filicide (parents killing their children before taking their own lives) are examples. Glory typically applies to mass shooters or suicidal avengers (those righting a perceived injustice).

Public Messaging and Murder-Suicide

Because of their increased impact, murder-suicides are often covered more widely by the media than a single suicide. Just to put this into context, approximately 105 Americans die every day in the US -- almost double the number who died in Las Vegas.

All of the coverage of mass shootings we experience for weeks after the tragedy can have the unintended effect of implying that all suicidal people are dangerous. They aren’t. As I stated earlier, murder-suicides are uncommon; suicidal individuals are primarily just a threat to themselves.

So how do we message about this—what do we train people to look for—without causing undue fear or perpetuating myths that people experiencing suicidal thoughts are dangerous? We must focus on what can be done proactively to prevent these outcomes -- many of the root causes for extreme despair and violent behavior are shared: loneliness, loss of purpose, desperation, hopelessness, fear and trauma. When we can catch problems as they emerge, we are much more likely to thwart this tragedy. When we ignore them they grow like cancer.

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Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ names are well known; they were responsible for the mass shooting at Columbine High School, and both died by suicide. Sue Klebold has spent the past 18 years trying to understand how her son could have carried out such horror.

“He was thinking about suicide, talking about it, writing about it two years before he died,” she learned. “It became clear to me he was focused on wanting to die.”

Sue is in no way saying that all mass shootings are murder-suicides, but she believes that in Dylan’s case, suicide was the motivating factor.

Workplace Violence

Domestic violence took Cara Russell’s life last year. According to Felix Nater, a workplace security management consultant who specializes in violence prevention, 1,700 employees killed themselves at work between 2003 and 2007, that number is rising. Suicides at the workplace are also extremely rare, since most people die of suicide in their homes or other places.

Nevertheless, people focused on workplace violence prevention are taking note of this trend. In response, experts suggest workplaces focus on "the office environment and improving managers’ “soft skills,” Nater says. An employee under a lot of stress at home may withdraw and internalize his anger or sadness rather than approaching a manager who hasn’t been empathetic in the past. Suicidal thoughts or aggression may be an “extreme reaction to lack of care and concern,” Nater says. “You should be in tune with your workforce. Foster a climate where people feel psychologically safe—whether they have a problem or not.”

Offering flexible scheduling, telling your employees that you’re available to talk, creating a friendly environment, training managers—these elements can all improve the situation for struggling employees, and even for those who aren’t. “Every workplace has a policy against something,” Nater says. “Why not have a policy that says, ‘We care about these people are we are focusing that attention in the following manner.’”

What Can We Do?

  • Training: Sue Klebold and others believe comprehensive proactive prevention efforts must include improving mental health services and educating the public on suicide prevention BEFORE crisis strikes (through initiatives like Mental Health First AidQuestion, Persuade, Refer and safeTALK).
  • Reducing access to lethal means. By limiting vulnerable people’s access to firearms we can help prevent many suicide deaths and murder-suicides. The Harvard School of Public Health has determined that if a person who is suicidal has easy access to lethal means this becomes a huge risk factor for death by suicide (and also murder-suicide) -- 52% of people who die by suicide in the US do so by fire arms. Rather than take a policy route, many groups are working collaboratively with families at risk to remove the firearms from the home during crisis periods. 
  • Research. We do need more research. According to a 2013 review of homicide-suicides, we know that perpetrators are typically middle-aged men and are more likely to be married to or separated from their victims than those who commit homicides or die of suicide. The study also noted, “Influence of alcohol and a history of domestic violence or unemployment were important in both groups but somewhat less prevalent in homicide–suicide than in homicide perpetrators.” We have much more we need to learn to really intervene and prevent these travesties. 

Conclusion

“We should never make the assumption that something like this happens purely because someone was evil or because someone had a certain ideology. It’s not about evil, it’s not even necessarily about hatred," says Sue. "It’s about other things far more complicated, things that are more sophisticated than that”

The only way we’ll know if someone is facing a lethal health situation is to talk about it. “The only way to do that is to begin asking, to begin having the dialogue, to have conversations without judgment and without blame and without negative consequences—and for more and more of us to ask and to listen and to know what to do, how to get that person connected with resources.”

About the Author

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Known nationally and internationally as an innovator in social change, Spencer-Thomas has helped start up multiple large-scale, gap filling efforts in mental health including the award-winning campaign Man Therapy and the nation’s first initiative for suicide prevention in the workplace. In 2016 she was an invited speaker at the White House. Her goal is to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities. Connect with Sally at www.SallySpencerThomas.com and on Facebook (@DrSallySpeaks), Twitter (@sspencerthomas) and LinkedIn.

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