What fuels family murder?

Family murders: we look at why people commit these deeply disturbing crimes, which have become something of a South African phenomenon.

Profile of a family killer
Family murders – i.e. suicide and taking the rest of the family with you - are nearly always committed by the father. One theory put forward to explain why family murder is common in the Afrikaans population, is because this is traditionally a highly patriarchal culture. The father assumes the role of head of the household, breadwinner and sole “protector” of the family. He often has an inappropriate and exaggerated sense of responsibility. 

Such a man is probably used to taking decisions on behalf of the other family members – even to the extreme point of deciding whether they would prefer to live or die.

The family murderer often feels out of control and overwhelmed by aspects of his life such as marital problems or custody disputes.

Financial difficulties are common and he may feel that he has failed and is letting his family down. There is a strong sense of helplessness and perceived inability to rectify the situation. The pressure can lead an otherwise controlled individual to lose control and become aggressive.

There is an unwillingness to admit that he is not coping. He would rather kill himself than admit that he needs help. The patriarchal man often feels that his family is unable to cope without him and would rather kill them than leave them to fend for themselves. 

“Trying to reconcile real emotions with a back-drop of hyper-masculine values will create a mis-match that often leads to emotional repression in favour of hegemonic masculine identities,” says Dr Neil McGibbon, Cape Town clinical psychologist. 

“These are engendered in boys at home and at school, and it is essential that these values are re-assessed to give boys the best possible chance of becoming a man who can be a successful and responsive partner and parent.”

“For some men, whilst they are in the role of provider, they may feel emotionally separate from the rest of the family and believe that they must be silent if they are struggling, particularly from a mental health point of view,” says McGibbon.

What about mothers who commit family murders?
This appears to be a rare occurrence. In such cases it has usually been a single mother who has assumed some of the roles ascribed to the traditional patriarchal father. The same exaggerated sense of responsibility and sense of being overwhelmed by circumstances occur in these situations.

Existing mental health problems

The most common problems experienced by people who commit suicide and murder their family first are: severe depression, untreated bipolar disorder and untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  All of these diagnoses can be complicated further by a dual diagnosis of substance dependence/abuse.  A history of being the victim of physical abuse in childhood is also pertinent.

Serious depression can be manifested in obvious sadness, but often it is expressed instead as a loss of pleasure or withdrawal from activities that had once been enjoyable.

Other symptoms include insomnia or sleeping too much, lethargy, change in appetite and difficulty concentrating – all which make it difficult for the person to function. The person feels hopeless and unable to cope with life.

What are the warning signs of suicide?
As with other forms of suicide, depression is often an underlying factor. Although most depressed people are not suicidal, most suicidal people are depressed.

But be careful if a depressed person’s mood has lifted, warns McGibbon. “If a depressed person decides that the solution to their problems is suicide, their mood can sometimes improve before they take their life, as sadly they believe that an achievable solution has been found.”

It is also common for people to have suicidal thoughts during a depressive episode but to lack the energy to act on it. When the mood has lifted and motivation and energy regained, the people can be at an even higher risk of acting on their desire to end their lives.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group (SADAG), one should look out for the following signs:

Previous suicide attempts: Between 20 and 50% of people who kill themselves had previously attempted suicide. Those who have made serious suicide attempts are at a much higher risk for actually taking their lives.

Talking about death or suicide: People who commit suicide often talk about it directly or indirectly. Sometimes those contemplating suicide talk as if they are saying goodbye or going away. 

Planning for suicide: Suicidal individuals often arrange to put their affairs in order. They may give away articles they value, pay off debts or a mortgage on a house, or change a will.

How can someone at risk be helped?

There are services that are accessible to depressed and isolated men, and often this begins in the work environment.  Social workers and psychologists are often attached to large organisations, either as a specific support department or through an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme).  These services may not always be able to offer a long-term intervention but can support and refer appropriately to other services. 

According to McGibbon, mental health services need to find ways of becoming more accessible to men without them believing that to make use of psychotherapy and psychiatry is to admit to failure or being weak. 

Society also has a major role to play. Often boys are encouraged to not show and thus not have emotions relating to stress and sadness, and that the only acceptable masculine way of communicating this is anger. 

School counsellors are available in some schools and can offer excellent support, but some boys find it hard to ask for help as they fear being ridiculed by their peers if they find out, cautions McGibbon.

Father and son

McGibbon, who specialises in treating adolescents and families and is Health24’s Teen Expert, says that the impact of absent fathers on their children is without doubt one of the most damaging entities. Absent fathers put themselves and their children at risk of trying to find a solution through a desperate, destructive act.

“Children need their fathers to be available emotionally to them, as it engenders emotional stability in the child.  This should be the case even if mom and dad are not together anymore.”

Being absent can mean having left the family and there is little or no contact, having died, or still being in the family but emotionally unavailable to their children. 

“We need to find ways of supporting men in their societal roles so that spending time with their children becomes second nature. Those dads who have this kind of relationship with their children will tell you how beneficial it is for their child and for them.”

Spending time playing and being with the family can be a major source of stress reduction and keeping a balance in a man’s life.  If children see that their fathers have emotions that they are able to express articulately rather than only when they are angry, it encourages the child’s own emotional abilities. 

“In my opinion, this begins by helping boys who are struggling emotionally to find ways to speak about their problems so that negative emotional states are not left festering for years until they are finally expressed in a rageful, desperate destructive act.  Men have a responsibility to each other to not be dismissive of men and boys who are stressed and struggling.

“Contrary to some belief, given the opportunity to do so, boys can and do speak about their emotions in a way that is meaningful to them, and this can have a massive impact on the type of man they become, for themselves and their families.”

- Ilse Pauw, Health24, December 2010

Where to go for help

Post a question to Dr Neil McGibbon on his Teen Expert Forum.

SADAG suicide helpline: 0800567567 


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