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Mothers killing children shocking, but reasons often behind crimes

Experts: Counseling is important first step to finding hope

According to the Violence Policy Center in a May 2012 report:

Medical studies estimate that between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths per year in the United States are the result of murder-suicide.

The report showed that in the first half of 2011:

• There were 313 murder-suicide events resulting in 691 murder-suicide deaths, of which 313 were suicides and 378 were homicides.

• Twelve murder-suicides occurred in the U.S. each week during the study period.

• Of the 313 murder-suicides, 280 involved a firearm (89.5 percent).

• Of the 313 suicides, 283 were male and 30 were female.

• Of the 378 homicides, 288 victims were female, 89 victims were male and the gender of one victim wasn’t identified.

• Fifty-five homicide victims were children and teens younger than 18.

In the wake of a shocking murder-suicide in Springfield this week, local mental health services have seen an uptick in people seeking help and urge anyone feeling overwhelmed to get counseling.

Police believe Rachel Johnson shot her two sons — Ayden, 10, and Daylan, 7 — before turning the gun on herself in her Burt Street home early Wednesday morning. The coroner will have the final say on the cause of the deaths.

Police aren’t discussing the gun used or what was written in a note left at the scene. Family members and friends have said they don’t know what could have lead up to the deaths.

But those who have studied the horror of “filicide” — a parent’s deliberate killing of a child — say that in a troubled parent’s mind, there may be reasons.

Dr. Phillip Resnick, professor of psychiatry at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve, has for 49 years studied women who kill their children. The feeling of horror regarding such women is profound, Resnick said.

“It’s very unsettling for people because a mother is viewed as the nurturer, the protector of children,” he said. “To do something that seems like such an unnatural act is very disturbing to people.”

However senseless such an act may appear to bereaved observers, Resnick said, many of these women believed they had a “reason” for murdering their children.

“I’ve interviewed over 80 of these women who have killed those children, and there is always a reason,” he said. “It’s not, ‘I don’t know why I did it.’ The reason may be psychotic. The reason may be irrational.”

Resnick has identified several possible motives, such as a desire for revenge when someone is angry at a spouse for infidelity or a fight for custody of children.

The children themselves may be unwanted, he said.

Or murder may be committed from a warped sense of “altruism,” he said, a belief that children are better off in “heaven” than alive.

There are also instances when parents are “acutely psychotic,” and no comprehensible motive can be discerned, he said.

Parents who kill use a variety of methods. For children younger than 1, hands are the most common killing tool, such as beating or strangulation, Resnick said.

But women use guns less often than men, he said.

No one knows why Johnson made the choices she did, said Sue Fralik, senior vice president of operations at Mental Health Services for Clark and Madison Counties.

“So all of the information I’m going to share are theories and theoretical,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a reason why this person did what she did.”

Fralik named depression as a possible contributing factor. Likewise, sometimes a psychotic episode might have occurred.

“Someone may be hearing voices or seeing things,” she said. “The voices could be telling them to do horrible things.”

But Fralik stressed that anyone feeling overwhelmed doesn’t need to be suicidal or hearing voices to take advantage of counseling — it’s available to everybody.

“Counseling has a big barrier at times,” she said. “People don’t access it. And there are a lot of misconceptions about counseling.”

While women are at higher risk for suicide attempts and depression compared to men, men are four times more likely to actually die by suicide, said Dr. Michelle Cornette, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Suicidology.

“Women kill themselves, too, and insofar as we would like to reduce suicide as much as possible, we can’t forget about individuals who fall into lower-risk demographics,” Cornette said.

Depression doesn’t respect gender boundaries, both Cornette and Dottie McNeal, supervisor of emergency and outpatient services for the Mental Health Services for Clark and Madison counties, stressed.

“Women don’t have a particularly vulnerability or susceptibility,” McNeal said. “Depression can happen to anyone. It’s how they handle it that makes all the difference.”

The warning signs are relevant for both sexes, clinicians said: Hopelessness, a search for a means to die (such as buying a weapon or stockpiling pills) and a general feeling that life will not improve.

There has been a slight ripple effect since Wednesday, McNeal said, with more people coming in expressing concern about friends or loved ones.

Staff are ready to offer screenings and guidance, she said. Springfield offices are at 474 N. Yellow Springs St. The Springfield 24/7 emergency services line is 937-399-9500.

The department has had counselors in the schools through Friday, in an effort to help students.

“It’s still a very, very touchy issue,” McNeal said.