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Debt's most tragic toll: murder-suicide

Financial hardship can lead to heightened violence, murder

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Anxiety, depression, fear -- even intense anger -- are all typical reactions among people with severe financial problems. However, in rare incidences, job loss and overwhelming bills can trigger the worst possible outcome: murder-suicide. While the perpetrators of this atrocious crime may believe it's the only way out, it never has to happen.

debt-death

The economy/psychology connection
There's been a spike in murder-suicide cases nationwide since the 2008 recession, says Manhattan psychologist Joseph Cilona. He is among many experts who see a connection to current economic pressures. "Money and financial success and security are very closely tied to both physical and psychological well-being and self-esteem," says Cilona. Without that, there is an increase "in general feelings of hopelessness, and dissatisfaction with life circumstances. All of these issues can be associated with suicidal thinking and violent behavior."

But are today's tougher conditions actually causing these crimes? Not necessarily, says Beth Morrison, president and CEO of Haven, a domestic and sexual violence prevention and treatment center in Detroit. "The poor economy doesn't make a person abusive, but it takes a person who already is abusive and increases the frequency and severity of the abuse."

In fact, a study conducted by Jacquelyn C. Campbell of Johns Hopkins University discovered that unemployment is a significant risk factor for incidences of murder-suicide, but only when combined with a history of domestic violence.

And crisis centers are busy. Morrison reports that calls to Haven's 24-hour help line have increased by about 20 percent over the past couple of years. "Whatever their financial stress was -- credit card debt, foreclosure, unemployment -- their abuse increased," says Morrison. "In the last six to eight weeks, several murder-suicides have occurred in the metro-Detroit area alone." 

Profile of a perpetrator
According to a Violence Policy Center study, "American Roulette: Murder Suicide in the United States," 94 percent of offenders are male, and almost all the cases involve men as the aggressors against women.

The whole family killings are clearly tied in with a crisis that seems insurmountable.

-- Katherine van Wormer
Co-author, "Death by Domestic Vioence"

"Individuals experiencing extreme financial hardship are at higher risk, as are those experiencing other life stressors, chronic health conditions and those using alcohol frequently," says Cilona. "Low self-esteem and poor self-image, as well as an external loss of control, are also common."

Just a few recent examples from the headlines:

  • Ervin Lupoe from Wilmington, Calif., shot his five children and wife to death before turning the gun on himself. Lupoe was deep in debt, behind on his mortgage and had been fired from his hospital job.
  • Donald Romano of Las Vegas shot his wife, then himself. Their daughter, Maria, said the couple's financial problems were the root of their stress.
  • Christopher Wood, from Frederick County, Md., killed his wife and three children before shooting himself. The notes he left behind detailed his frustrations about their finances. After moving to Florida, he couldn't keep up with his new mortgage payments and owed over $450,000.
  • An Anaheim, Calif., man (name not yet released) shot his wife to death and critically injured his 3-year-old before turning the gun on himself. The motive under investigation: the couple's nearly half-million-dollar debt and impending house foreclosure.

Perpetrators frequently share circumstantial, as well as psychological, traits. "They are often viewed as successful members of their community, who begin to feel a sense of their lives falling apart due to financial factors like loss of a job, chronic unemployment or impending foreclosure," says Cilona.

Why take others down?
"The whole family killings are clearly tied in with a crisis that seems insurmountable," says Katherine van Wormer, co-author of "Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and the Murder-Suicide." She says this type of person is profoundly insecure and has a bloated sense of importance. "The father then takes the whole family and himself. He feels responsible for all of them, and they think that others can't live without him. It's very egocentric. It's a 'we might as well all be dead' mentality."

Dr. Kathy Seifert, author of "How Children Become Violent," says shame has a lot to do with why people commit this type of crime as well. "Typically, it's men who identify themselves as breadwinners. That role becomes their identity. But if they are in the position of not being able to provide, the shame of that is more than they can bear. They can't face their family with that."

Still, Seifert emphasizes that there are complex factors at work. "No one thing will put someone over the edge to become violent and suicidal. There has to be a buildup of multiple things."

Signs of distress and danger
Clearly the vast majority of financially stressed people do not commit murder-suicide, but knowing the signs of distress and danger is important. According to van Wormer, problems on the job, heavy drinking and prescription drug abuse need to be monitored, as well as a propensity toward extreme "all or nothing thoughts."

Typically, it's men who identify themselves as breadwinners. That role becomes their identity. But if they are in the position of not being able to provide, the shame of that is more than they can bear. They can't face their family with that.

-- Kathy Seifer
Author, "How Children Become Violent"

"Look out for symptoms of depression, statements indicating feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, significant weight gain or weight loss, irritability, difficulty concentrating and disrupted sleep patterns," says Cilona.

Another warning sign, says Seifert, is difficulty coping with stress: "They get disorganized and confused. They don't seem to apply problem-solving skills. They get just get upset."

Additionally, the person may have a history of domestic violence, losing control and doing odd things. Normal, healthy people don't turn to murder-suicide even when they have horrible money problems, says Seifert.  They may have a history of psychotic behavior that they manage with medication. It's when they stop taking it that problems occur.

Watch, too, for someone who unhealthily associates himself as the primary provider and is losing his home and job and can't pay bills. "Their identity is falling apart --- it becomes too much to bear," warns Seifert.

Prevention and options
If you're concerned that someone is demonstrating these warning signs and behaviors, Seifert suggests first talking with that person in a calm moment. "Phrase it in a 'Will you help me?' way, so you are placing them in the position of strength." Prediction of violence is complicated, says Seifert. "The layperson can't do it alone. You need a professional to step in." 

With or without the person in question, get help via a crisis center, a psychologist, even a church. Rid the house of any guns, says van Wormer. The Violence Policy Center study found that 92 percent of murder-suicide incidents involved a firearm.

When leaving is best, make sure you put together an escape plan, says Morrison. "Know what you need to take with you, where would you go and who would you tell." Getting sound legal advice is paramount, especially if kids are involved, as custody and parental rights matters can complicate matters.

Financial advisers, bank managers, credit card company representatives and anyone else in direct contact with distraught customers should also know the warning signs, says van Wormer. And if these professionals notice despondency, she recommends they grab the opportunity "to show them that there is help."

Finally, what everyone struggling with money troubles needs to understand, says Steve Rhode, president of MyVesta Foundation and founder of GetOutofDebt.org, is that these are solvable problems. "If you're facing foreclosure and are deep in debt, something like credit counseling doesn't work," says Rhode, who points to bankruptcy as a viable option.

Rhode urges people to abandon the stigma of this process, and to not reach for techniques that will frustrate and disappoint even further, like debt settlement companies. "Bankruptcy will help with most debt. There is a tremendous value in eliminating the stressful situation you're feeling today, so you can have a better tomorrow."

See related: Severe debt can cause depression and even suicide, Help for bad credit: Dealing emotionally, 8 times when it's best to ignore your credit score, How debt settlement works, how it affects credit scores, 5 tips for those considering bankruptcy

Published: November 8, 2010



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