A new study finds that close to 40 percent of UK parents who killed their children suffered from some sort of mental illness.
Researchers at The University of Manchester also found that 12 percent of those parents had been in contact with mental health services within a year of the tragedy, known as filicide.
Researchers from the university’s Institute of Brain Behaviour and Mental Health analyzed 297 cases of convicted filicide and 45 cases of filicide-suicides in England and Wales between January 1997 and December 2006. They used data from the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness (NCI), a case series of all homicides in the UK, with a focus on perpetrators with mental illness.
Researchers said the study’s key finding was the over-representation of mental illness in filicide. About 40 percent of filicide perpetrators had a recorded mental illness.
The most common diagnoses were mood disorders and personality disorder, not psychosis, the researchers note.
This is in contrast to popular perceptions and that of some professionals that parents with more severe psychotic illnesses, like schizophrenia, are more likely to kill their children, the researchers said.
“Risk-assessment of mothers in joint psychiatric care reported (the) greatest risk of actual harm to a child was presented by mothers with mood disorders like depression, rather than schizophrenia,” said Kathryn Abel, Ph.D., who led the study.
“In spite of this, staff consistently perceived and rated mothers with schizophrenia to be the greatest risk to their infants and this was reflected in significantly higher rates of social service supervision on discharge compared to other ill mothers.”
The proportion of perpetrators with psychosis was still high at 15 percent — 18 percent of mothers — compared to 6 percent of homicides in the general population, according to the study. This compares to 0.4 percent in the UK general population, researchers note.
The researchers also found that just 20 percent of the parents who killed their children had previous contact with mental health services. These findings were consistent with a similar study in Denmark, which found that most parents who commit filicide had no prior psychiatric history, the UK researchers report.
Another key finding from the new study was that 23 percent of mothers who killed their children were teenagers when the child was born. That contrasts with 7 percent in the general population, according to the researchers.
The study also found that fathers were significantly more likely to kill their children than mothers. They also were more likely to use violent methods of killing, to kill multiple people, have previous convictions for violent offenses, and a history of substance misuse or dependence.
Of the 297 filicide cases recorded during the 10-year period, the study found 13 percent of the perpetrators took their own life after killing their child.
The study also found that victims were equally likely to be girls or boys. Infants were most likely to be victims. This strengthens the call for early detection of postpartum mental illness, the researchers advise.
“Identifying associations between mental illness and filicide has clear implications for service providers,” said Abel. “It shows there needs to be greater awareness for patients who are parents and especially those with severe mood disorders. This is an increasingly important issue because better mental health care means that more people with mental illness are able to become parents.”
The researchers conclude that future research on filicide should study these killings in the context of child abuse and domestic violence to support the development of effective interventions.
The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Source: University of Manchester