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A Look At What Triggers Murder-Suicides

Susan B. Wilson

Murder suicide is rare, but on the rise across the country. Missouri is in the top ten for women killed by intimate partners, and murder-suicide has increased in Kansas.

When murder-suicide occurs, it leaves loved ones and friends with many unanswered questions. Amid the shock, anger and grief, people ask themselves, “Why?”  They wonder, “What did we miss?” Or, “What could we have done?”  For answers, we turned to Overland Park Forensic Psychologist Dan Claiborn.

In addition to working as a therapist, he works with police departments and serves on the hostage negotiation team for the Olathe Police Department.

According to Dr. Claiborn, some of the major contributing factors in murder suicide cases are: access to guns, a history of domestic violence, and whether there is estrangement between the perpetrator and the victim.

Interview Highlights

“We estimate that there are about 1,000 to 1,500 situations each year in the United States.  Almost all of them, over 90% are committed by males.”

“Murder suicides can’t be predicted because it’s such a rare occurrence really; it’s such a low level frequency occurrence that you can’t predict it.  But the risk factors, if you look at them that way, the primary one would be any history of domestic violence in the relationship already. Forty percent of murder suicides, the individual doing the murder suicide is a person who is jealous and abusing substances…”

“Those of us in violence risk predictions kind of fields think that that it’s a little bit like a recipe of ingredients. You have the emotional arousal on the part of the person that generates the need to do something.  Then you have maybe a situation that allows for something to be done… Then you have access to a weapon, a means to commit an action.  And then you have what you might call a disinhibitor, whether it’s drinking or using substances or something like that, to allow the person to overcome their socially trained instincts not to harm someone.”

“Well I think we really in a way have to separate out the murder part from the suicide part…I think there are certain factors that influence a person to be willing to take the step of murdering someone.  I think that has to do with a person who is highly emotional, who is impulsive.  Most people who commit murder are young, so they are more of an age where people are impulsive and they do things quickly…Probably it’s more common with people who are highly self-centered, who are used to being in control of themselves and other people, and also have a very strong need to protect their image… ”

“Then the suicide part is probably related to similar things. If a person is very self-centered and has a lot of pride and a lot of concern about their image, once they’ve committed some horrible act, they may be a lot less able to imagine a life after that in which they make amends, are accepted again by the community, are able to recover, overcome this and do anything healthy and productive.  They may not be able to imagine that happening.  It may be a bigger blow to their ego to imagine the disapproval and the condemnation of others after this has happened, and so those factors might propel them to feel that they have to remove themselves from the situation, rather than to face consequences.

“Some studies have looked at people who have shot themselves and survived.  And people who have done that when they are interviewed they’ve been asked, ‘How long before you attempted to kill yourself were you actively thinking about doing it?’  And over 80% of those people said it was less than one hour.  And over 25% of those people said it was less than 5 minutes.  So suicides of those types…Those kinds of no return suicides are very impulsive.”

KCUR's Up To Date explored the topic of Domestic Violence on December 4th, 2012. Click here to hear the program and find area resources.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Susan admits that her “first love” was radio, being an avid listener since childhood. However, she spent much of her career in mental health, healthcare administration, and sports psychology (Susan holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Bloch School of Business at UMKC.) In the meantime, Wilson satisfied her journalistic cravings by doing public speaking, providing “expert” interviews for local television, and being a guest commentator/contributor to KPRS’s morning drive time show and the teen talk show “Generation Rap.”
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