Three things we can do to get serious about tackling murder-suicides

Orla Muldoon: One issue is Ireland does not have a review process for domestic violence

‘An Garda Síochána alone will not solve the issue of fatal domestic violence.’ File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

‘An Garda Síochána alone will not solve the issue of fatal domestic violence.’ File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

There have been 27 murder-suicides in Ireland since January 2007, when the National Suicide Research Foundation began compiling records. We will not be able to resolve or address this issue within our communities without considerable effort. It is time to get serious about this issue and move on from hand-wringing.

There are three immediate issues to consider. The first is the potential for social contagion. In the last year alone there have been three incidents of murder-suicide in the southwest. Nine people dead: three suicides, six murders. Social contagion of suicide risk is a well-documented phenomenon dating back to the 18th century. The risk of future suicide and suicidal behaviours has been shown to pass through social networks.

Fewer than 10 per cent of primary healthcare providers routinely screen patients for domestic violence during regular office visits

When we look, for example, to the US, we often attribute murder-suicides to the widespread availability of guns. And this is a second concern for us. There is widespread access to firearms in Ireland. Having means to execute violence is central to whether any murderous plan is enacted. It is currently estimated that seven per 100 people in Ireland have access to a gun. Seven in 100 people have access to the most lethal of means in their own homes.

Domestic violence

Currently in the aftermath of fatal domestic violence incidents, gardaí conduct a criminal investigation. No one profession or discipline will solve this issue alone and it is unfair for this to fall to An Garda Síochána. The international evidence clearly tells us that criminal investigation is unlikely to deliver changes that prevent and protect people vulnerable to domestic violence.

Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at University of Limerick

A third concern then is that Ireland does not have a review process for domestic violence. Both suicide and domestic violence are complex and intractable social problems. International best practice is to accept the complexity of the problem and conduct reviews in the wake of such incidents that are akin to social postmortems. Their aim is to promote cultures of safety.

These review processes have become standard in the wake of domestic homicides in most western countries. And they offer valuable insights. We know for example that both victims and perpetrators tend to have frequent contact with the healthcare sector prior to the deaths. Typically these contacts are found to have offered opportunities to prevent injury and death.

Screening

In practice, fewer than 10 per cent of primary healthcare providers routinely screen patients for domestic violence during regular office visits. And if questions are asked, for the most part concerns are raised with those seen as possible or potential victims.

The subject of domestic violence remains taboo. Violence in the home, in that place where everyone – men, women and children – ought to feel safe

Screening to identify those who perpetrate domestic violence is rarely, if ever, undertaken. International domestic violence reviews have highlighted the value of danger assessments. Even though their use is advocated, they are not a standard part of healthcare practice here and are not widely used among practitioners – despite their life-saving value.

This needs to change. Those who perpetrate violence against their families tend to have a history of depression, alcohol abuse, and childhood victimisation. They are often, but not always, men. There is no doubt that this line of questioning is something that very many of us would find difficult. Even trained professionals need training to speak of the unspeakable.

And how much more difficult might this be for friends and worried neighbours. The subject of domestic violence remains taboo. Violence in the home, in that place where everyone – men, women and children – ought to feel safe. Sometimes the silence can be truly deafening.

Our current practices are reminiscent of the Seamus Heaney poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing: “Expertly civil tongued” concerns about “it’s getting worse” and “where’s it going to end”. Commentary on the national airwaves has been punctuated by commentary that states “we shall never now know why” these events happened. And that is certainly the case as long as we don’t take domestic violence seriously.

If you are affected by any issue in this article, please contact Pieta House on 1800-247247 or the Samaritans by telephoning 116 123 (free) or by emailing jo@samaritans.ie

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