Thursday 18 April 2019

Nicola Anderson: Citing mental health issues may be 'default' position when it comes to tragedy

Alan Hawe’s brutal slaying of his wife and three sons has placed the issue of murder-suicide back in the spotlight, writes Nicola Anderson

The three brothers - Ryan, Niall and Liam - celebrate a birthday at the family home in Castlerahan, near Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan. and inset Clodagh Hawe
The three brothers - Ryan, Niall and Liam - celebrate a birthday at the family home in Castlerahan, near Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan. and inset Clodagh Hawe
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Amid the fallout and helpless distress of the Hawe tragedy, with all its unanswered questions, yet another arises – where do we go from here?

Ireland now has one of the highest per capita rates of murder-suicide involving children in the world.

Research shows that almost half the murder suicide cases in Ireland over the past 15 years were found to have depression or other mental-health issues as a major factor.

But what was the twisted reasoning behind the other half? And how can such a horrible national tendency towards the most disturbing of crimes be addressed in order to prevent such tragedies from happening again?

Chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services Paul Gilligan has now weighed into the debate, asking if mental health issues truly lay behind Alan Hawe’s brutal slaying of his wife Clodagh (39) and sons Liam (13), Niall (11) and Ryan (6) at their home in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan, in August 2016.

Expert witness to the inquest, Professor Harry Kennedy, clinical director of the Central Mental Hospital, working off the suicide note left by Alan Hawe on the kitchen table, along with the medical notes of his GP and the session notes of his counsellor, said he believes Hawe was suffering from a depressive illness which had significantly worsened and that he had psychotic episodes.

However, in their statement outside Cavan courthouse, Clodagh’s family, the Colls, cast doubt on this post-mortem diagnosis, saying: “It is clear from the evidence presented that Clodagh and the boys were killed in a sequence that ensured that the eldest and most likely to provide effective resistance were killed first, and that they were executed in a manner which rendered them unable to cry out for help.”

Left unsaid was that this was far from being a crime of passion or something which arose when Hawe suddenly ‘snapped’ but was clearly meticulously researched and planned out.

Clodagh Hawe with her sons Niall, Ryan and Liam on a holiday in Venice
Clodagh Hawe with her sons Niall, Ryan and Liam on a holiday in Venice

Because it was an inquest and not a trial, there was no evidence provided from Hawe’s all but inevitable computer searches on how he would carry out his slaying.

The only hint of Hawe’s clear plan in the evidence lay in the comment by Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis, that he found it “very difficult to believe that it’s entirely coincidental” that the windpipes of each of the children were severed, rendering “all three of them unable to make a sound”.

Arguably another subtle hint as to the planning of this crime lay in the garda observance that the garden shed had been in ‘good order’ – which had easily allowed Hawe to lay his hands on the hatchet he had used to inflict the catastrophic injuries on Clodagh.

Was this level of cold and calculated thought really in line with someone who had suffered from mental illness?

In his evidence, Prof Kennedy said somebody suffering from the condition Alan Hawe had would have a “severely impaired” state of mind leading to their acting “irrationally”.

This could occur even if the person appeared to be acting normally in their general lives, he said.

However, Mr Gilligan believes that blaming such acts on mental health issues may be the “default” position which is easiest for society to process – but that it may prevent us from looking beyond that into the causes of such events.

“The emotional anxiety such events creates for people causes them to default to the easiest explanation,” he said.

“It creates a huge difficulty around the stigma already connected to mental health.

“But if we are having proper conversations to develop a full understanding of why such events occur, we need to challenge some of that,” he said.

Mr Gilligan said that most people with mental health issues do not engage in violent behaviour and to attribute it to mental health is a “big leap” – but we do it in a way to find explanation that in some way excuses people from their actions.

“We need to be brave enough to have this conversation now,” he told the Irish Independent.

“It would be equally brave to say that he may have done it because of anger or jealousy or distress – we need to be brave enough to say this because they are not mental health issues. They are not what we would define as mental health issues.”

He argued that we need to be fair to the victims and to try to help people understand what is going on here and that we need “to be honest” so that we can truly address the risk factors and ensure such acts do not occur again.

And he said we have to acknowledge that if someone will act like this because of anger or some sort of emotional discomfort or connecting in with belief systems around marriage or status in the community, then we need to address that.

“I’m not debating the findings here but let’s be sure,” he said. “Unless we’re sure an act like this was caused by mental health issues we need to be very careful about this because there is no other evidence and the body of research says people with mental health issues are no more likely to perpetrate violent crime than any other person.”

Mr Gilligan said we also need to look at how we view children in society, saying:

“There is an element where we need to say how do we see them – do we still see them as our property and possession and that without us they cannot thrive?

“Or do we see them as citizens in their own right?,” he asked.

Details of the suicide note left behind by Hawe have subsequently emerged following the inquest in which a picture was painted of a catalogue of minor incidents which, as Prof Kennedy said in his report, had been blown out of proportion by Hawe.

Amongst them was a belief Hawe had fallen short in his work as a teacher at the school, that he was lazy and that people over the summer had been “looking at me oddly and not saluting me”.

And in their rider, the Cavan jury recommended a greater focus be placed on mental health in the workplace.

Cindy O’Connor, chief operations manager of Pieta House, believes there is a growing focus on this issue, with their organisation doing much work with a number of companies to raise awareness

The construction industry is particularly good on this issue because of the very high rate of suicide in their sector during the recession years, she said, while Electric Ireland has also been very progressive, she added.

“I do think overall there is a genuine interest in the workplace,” she said, adding that the stigma had reduced. However, she said people paid more attention to “mild to moderate” mental illness than the more stigmatised “moderate to severe”.

Anyone affected by issues raised in this article can contact Samaritans on 116 123, Pieta House on 1800 247 247, Childline on 1800 66 66 66, or text "support" to 50101, and Women's Aid on 1800 341 900.

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