Why do murder-suicides happen?

An apparent murder-suicide in Tisdale, Sask., has claimed the life of a mother and three children, along with the main suspect in the killings.

Criminologists answer five questions about murder-suicides

(iStock )

An apparent murder-suicide in Tisdale, Sask., has claimed the life of a mother and three children, along with the main suspect in the killings.

As more information about the case comes in, people are asking questions about these types of killings, and if there is anything that can be done to prevent them.

CBC talked to some of the country's top criminologists to get some answers. While these experts weren't intimately familiar with this case, all of them have studied past crimes that are similar. Here's what they told us:

1. Why do these crimes happen?

According to Neil Boyd, the director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, murder-suicides are almost always committed by men. They also take place among people who know each other very well, often within a family.

Boyd said the man is almost always estranged from a domestic partner or love interest.

He said when children become involved as victims, they're generally being used as a way to get back at someone.

"It's a form of revenge," he said. "If you won't live with me, you're going to lose everything. It's a very distorted kind of logic, but it's not uncommon for a murder/suicide to see the death of a mother and children."

Boyd has interviewed many murderers over the years. He said men in this type of scenario are often very unsettled.

"They were angry and hurt and confused and lashing out at a person who had left them," he said. "In one scenario, a relationship was breaking down, and the sense was, 'I will make you pay. I will hurt you more than you hurt me."

2. How often do these events happen?

According to Irvin Waller, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, these instances are relatively rare.

Using the latest information from Statistics Canada, only about six per cent of murders end in suicide. 

"There's somewhere around 30 (across the country) every year," said Waller.

While that number used to sit around ten per cent, it has been dropping in recent years.

3. Are there any warning signs to look out for?

While each case is different, there are often common threads to watch for.

One of the most important things to watch out for is a history of violent behaviour

"If you've had a person with a lengthy history of personal conflict, perhaps a restraining order, perhaps assault charges or convictions against an estranged partner, all of those are warning signs," said Boyd.

Professor Waller said it's important to not ignore signs of domestic abuse, even if it seems minor at the time.

"Certainly, there is good reason for someone who talks about killing his wife to take that seriously," he said. 

4. How can this be stopped?

One of the most important things to do when a woman is in danger is to remove her from the home, and bring her to a safe place.

"We live in a country where the main way of protecting the wife is to move her out of the home, and into a transition shelter, or shelter for battered wives," said Waller.

Boyd said the men involved in these situations often lack the social skills needed to deal with stressful situations. Fixing that could help in some situations.

"The solution is to have more resiliency and to have more resources to cope with the problems that they face," he said. "To have relationships in which violence against the partner is tolerated, is seen in any sense as acceptable, is obviously a big part of this problem."

Waller said anyone with access to firearms should be placed under extra scrutiny. He said the current system of firearms licensing, which includes a criminal records check, as well as a system where people in the community vouch for your character and mental health is a good thing.

5. How will the community react?

While any situation like this is devastating for friends and family of the deceased, it can also have major effects on the community, especially when children are involved.

Sonia Salari is a Professor at the University of Utah. Along with her colleague Carrie Sillito, she has studied the effects of murder/suicide cases on children.

"It's very hard on the community," she said. "The school that the children went to, and the neighbourhood they played in, other children are going to think, 'Am I in danger?' Especially when that danger comes from inside the home."

Salari said it's even more difficult in cases of murder/suicide, because there is no trial process to bring closure.

"The perpetrator has controlled this whole thing," she said. "They didn't have to go through the justice system that would have punished them."