Extreme family violence: trying to understand murder-suicide

Murder-suicide is a unique (and extreme) response to significant, stressful life events such as relationship separation. Image from shutterstock.com

As details emerge of the latest appalling shooting incident in the United States, it seems the alleged perpetrator may have planned to die by suicide, after taking the lives of others - just as many have done before him.

While shocking public incidents of this nature can become the “face” of murder-suicide, the reality is that murder-suicide takes many different forms. A rage-filled spouse killing their former partner and their children. A loving husband killing his cancer-stricken wife. A desperate mother in the grips of post-natal depression, killing her own child.

We can empathise with a frail and elderly couple who wish to die together, and come part of the way to understanding the motives for both murder and suicide in that instance. But other types of murder-suicide remain incomprehensible. After all, how could someone kill a child? And what drives the perpetrator to take their own life afterwards – is it guilt? Fear of punishment? Did they feel unable to live without the person they have just killed?

It also prompts us to ask whether they were suicidal beforehand and, most importantly, whether could we have somehow detected their intentions and intervened.

Victims and offenders

Murder-suicide is one of the rarest types of lethal violence. Over an almost 20-year period in Queensland, there were more than 10,000 suicides with fewer than 1% of those suicides also involving murder. Nationally, of the 611 homicide offenders identified in 2008–09 and 2009–10, around 3% (20 offenders) died by suicide at the time of, or shortly after, the homicide incident.

Murder-suicide is most often perpetrated by men – but this is hardly surprising. Men are generally the perpetrators of murder, and men make up the majority of suicides in Australia, too.

Women and children are most likely to be the victims, because murder-suicide most frequently occurs within domestic or family relationships. Estranged former partners are particularly at-risk, whereas people outside the family or not known to the perpetrator are least likely to be killed in these events.

International research gives us some useful insights into common motives around murder-suicides, such as jealousy and possessiveness in intimate relationships. But there have been very few studies of murder-suicide in Australia, beyond providing general demographic information or information about the types of relationships between perpetrator and victim/s.

Can we predict murder-suicide?

Typically, murder and suicide are treated as two unrelated forms of violence, requiring different types of policy responses. Murder is generally considered a public safety or criminal justice problem whereas suicide is usually thought of as a public health or mental health problem.

Most existing studies compare murder-suicide with either murder-only cases, or suicide-only cases. Our current research, for example, has found that relative to suicide-only cases, perpetrators of murder-suicide were more likely to be experiencing:

  • legal and financial problems
  • to currently have a family violence order against them, and
  • to be involved in a child custody dispute.

This fits with the growing school of thought that murder-suicide is a unique (and extreme) form of response to significant life events such as relationship separation. It also suggests that in the context of highly stressful relationships – and family-related legal circumstances – the presence of past violence may be one of the most useful indicators of potentially lethal future violence.

This is useful information, but it is just one insight into an incredibly complex set of human behaviours. The next step is to simultaneously compare Australian murder-suicide cases with suicide-only cases and murder-only cases.

Preventing murder-suicide

If we can better understand the specific types of events that may lead to murder-suicide, relative to murder-only or suicide-only, and the types of people most likely to be severely impacted by those events, then perhaps we can better identify who may be at risk of becoming a statistic.

Unfortunately, what we have yet to discover – and in fact may never know – is why, out of the many Australians who experience legal, family and relationship, and other stresses, some not only end their own lives, but take the lives of others, first.

But even if we never fully understand the “why” of murder-suicide, we are at least finding out more about “who” and what else was happening in their lives. This sets us on the long path to enabling better protection for the women and children most at risk of becoming victims.


The authors wish to acknowledge Ms Lauren Barnes’ contribution to the content of this article.