Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Mothers who murder their children - in the name of mental illness?

Yesterday an Edinburgh woman, Theresa Riggi pleaded guilty to killing her three children by stabbing them to death before jumping from the balcony of her flat.

She pleaded guilty not to murder but manslaughter on the grounds of diminnished responsibility.

It is unfortunately not uncommon (although thankfully not too common either) for parents to kill their children, and to then sometimes go on to kill themselves. There seems to be a difference though in terms of how these crimes are viewed, depending on whether it is the father or mother who commits the act.

If it is the father, the overwhelming opinion appears to be that he was a selfish man just out to seek revenge against his (usually ex) wife, by taking her children away from her.

But if a mother kills her children the overwhelming reaction seems to be that she must have been suffering some form of mental illness, and people even find it in themselves to feel sympathy for her.

This concept bothers me.

I think that we can all accept that anyone who kills another human being is not mentally normal. Even the most notorious killers have acted beyond the boundaries of normal behavior and as such we could consider them to have a mental disorder, be that a personality disorder or another mental illness.

But yet we do not seek to sympathise with the most notorious killers, apparently our sympathies are reserved for those killers who had an emotional attachment to their victims prior to killing them.

There are of course instances where someone does harm to another individual where mental illness is clearly to blame, and of course those people deserve nothing but sympathy. However I think that automatically assuming anyone who kills their own child must be suffering from mental illness is a very slipper slope to go down. If we assume that all mothers who kill their children are mentally ill, there's just a short jump from that to making the assumption that all mentally ill mothers are capable of killing their children, and thus consider them to be a risk to their children.

Yet most mothers who suffer from mental illness are not any risk to their children at all. In fact while many mothers suffering mental illness do harbour serious thoughts about harming themselves and ending their own lives, most will tell you that they could never conceive of harming their children.

It's a dangerous assumption to make that any mother who kills a child must have a mental illness, because it takes no account of the possibility that some mothers do deliberately harm and even kill their children, and is an insult to those mothers who are genuinely mentally ill and who would never wish to harm their children, yet leaves them vulnerable to suspicion by those who would automaticaaly equate one (mental illness) with the other (child killer).

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