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Murder-Suicide, What Are The Warning Signs?

Above: Left to right, victims Emily Pimienta, 9, Priscilla Pimienta, 17, Georgina Pimienta , 38, and perpetrator Alfredo Pimienta, 44, were found dead in their Skyline home on May 24, 2011. Police suspect a possible suicide pact, notes written by each parent are under investigation.

Aired 7/12/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

A disturbing trend in San Diego -- four separate families have been involved in murder-suicides. We'll look beyond the tragedy and bring you resources to help potential victims and survivors.

Resources

Access and Crisis Line (800-479-3339), 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week suicide prevention/intervention hotline. Calls are FREE and answered by trained professionals. Service is available in multiple languages.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK/8255), 24 hours a day/7 days a week, confidential, nationwide network of crisis centers.

San Diego Domestic Violence Hotline (888-385-4657)

Up2Us San Diego: Support advice, warning signs, resources

It's the sort of news that puts a hole in the pit of your stomach. Stories of murder-suicides are not common, but we have had five of them in our region in the past seven weeks, starting with a family found dead in the Skyline area. Most recently a husband and wife in Oceanside. Are there any common threads that run through these tragedies and increased awareness we can gain to prevent them?

Guests

Jessica van der Stad, area director, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Kenneth R. Woods, Steering Committee member for the San Diego Domestic Violence Council & Director of City Heights Dads’ Club for Price Charities

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

And you're tuned to Midday Edition here on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. It's the sort of news that hit you in the pit of your stomach. Stories of murder suicides are not common, not usually. But we have had five of them in our region in the past few weeks, starting with a family of four found dead in the skyline area, and most recently a husband and wife couple in Oceanside. The question is, are there any common threads that run through these tragedies? Is there any increased awareness we can gain to prevent them? We have Jessica Vanderstad, who is the area director of the American foundation for suicide prevention. Thank you so much for joining us

VANDERSTAD: Thank you for having us.

ST. JOHN: And Kenneth woods who is a a steering committee member, and director of City Heights dad's club for price charities. Thanks for being here, Ken

WOODS: Thank you for having us.

ST. JOHN: If you have any questions to ask of our guests, give us a call. It's 1-888-895-5727. Jessica, let me start with you and ask you how unusual is it that we have four local families and then a couple who have been victims of murder suicides in such a short period of time in our community.

VANDERSTAD: It is unique that we have had so many in such a short period of time. But the fact is that murder suicide over all is actually quite rare. It just really draws the attention of media because the stories are so horrific and filled with grieve. The bigger issue is the issue of suicide. Every 15†minutes, someone in the U.S. dies of suicide. Suicide itself is unfortunately quite common in our country.

ST. JOHN: Gaining a better understanding of this is so important. These were scattered all over the county. Is it just an unfortunate coincidence, or is there more to the fact that these cases happened in quick succession?

VANDERSTAD: It is very unfortunate. Obviously it draws attention that suicide is a county wide problem, and it's something that we do need to address. Of the thing that we talk about when we do talk suicide is the underlying cause. And most often that cause is mental illness. 90% of people who died by suicide surf from an inundiagnosed and untreated mental illness at the time of their death. And the key words here are undiagnosed andup treated

ST. JOHN: Right. That is not something that we can find out after the fact, unfortunately, whether they suffered from an untreated mental illness. But you're telling us the statistics suggest 90% of people who do commit suicide have an untreated mental illness. Do you see any common threads among the five cases that we have had recently in San Diego that would give us some understandings, some reasons of why this would happen, bearing in mind that there must have been some untreated mental condition underneath them all?

WOODS: Certainly that's true. And one thing we found is the individuals committing these murder suicides felt that they were backed into a corner. And they department know what to do about it.

ST. JOHN: That's something that you can see in all of these. And which particular corner would you say it was they were backed into?

WOODS: One would actually be the resources end of it, not knowing what resources are available or how to get to those resources.

ST. JOHN: Right. So financial pressures seem to have been an issue in this case. Do you think that we're too beside looking for the reasons why why, and in fact those are just the triggers, that what we should be focusing on more are the underlying reasons why people make this decision? Jessica?

VANDERSTAD: I could not agree with you more. When we talk about suicide, there's two different areas: Warning signs, and also precipitating eventsment and the warning signs are the key of what we need to examine. Off times we do want to find answers, why this happened, why this occurred. But if we look at the warning signs, we can examine the bigger issue of suicide and the efforts to prevent these terrible things from happening

PENNER: So now you guys, the American foundation for suicide prevention that you're with, Jessica, and the domestic violence council that you're with, Ken, are collaborating in response to this series of murder suicides. Why is that important? How did that come about?

VANDERSTAD: To really be successful in preventing suicide or preventing domestic violence, it takes an effort to address all the issues involved. And I think that's where our class action comes in, is that preventing suicide, preventing domestic violence is not the effort of a single organization. It does take a community and class action of a variety of different organizations working together.

ST. JOHN: So can you give us a bit of an insight into what are the warning signs? I think that's what people want to know. How could they possibly have foreseen something like this? Ken?

WOODS: One of the things that I'm going to do, I'm actually going to give that over to Jessica. She's better fit to handle that question.

PENNER: Fair enough. Because you are with the suicide prevention foundation. Right.

VANDERSTAD: Yes. When we talk about the warning signs for suicide, we do talk about prior history of family violence, which draws in the San Diego domestic violence council and our partnership. But we also talk about threats with increased violence, such as voicing that an individual is going to hurt him or herself. We also talk about illness, mental illness and substance abuse. And different behaviors that change, so an individual may become withdrawn or isolated from family and friends, may also give away prized possessions in annest to kind of rid themselves of worldly possessioned. But as we drawback to the major point it's that mental illness does play a factor in the majority of suicides. And with that illness we're talking about depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and we're talking about undiagnosed and untreated illness

ST. JOHN: The question rises to my mind, whether this couple, the first couple that ended up in the pool wouldn't that be something that people would have had some glimpse that there was some untreated mental problems going on before that happened? Everything we've heard is that people suggest there was very little warning that this would happen. They were having a party by the pool a week before

VANDERSTAD: I can't talk about the specifics of any one case. But I can talk about that the majority of people don't know the warning signs. See there's really an effort to increase awareness of the warning signs so that everyone can realize that certain actions may put individuals atific are. The unique thing about depression in particular is that the majority of people who struggle with it, especially major depression, get in this state that it's almost like a black cloud over them, and it gets darker and darker, and they cannot see through. This telescopic vision enables them to not see that they need help and ask for help. And that puts themselves in the pos to take their own lives

ST. JOHN: And there's pretty clear risk factors too that you've developed. Can you give us some sense of who are the people most at risk for deciding that suicide is a solution?

VANDERSTAD: Yes, there are a lot of risk factor it is. The main thing to realize is that suicide impacts everyone and every culture, ethnicity, gender, it does not have any exclusions. Certainly people that may be at risk are obviously individuals who have struggle with a mental il'llness or have a family history of mental ilelness, as a lot of these illnesses are genetic. Also individuals that self harm. Of so individuals who may cut themselves, it's especially common in the teen demographic. Also substance abuse users, and those who engage in domestic violence.

ST. JOHN: So now, Ken, you're involved with a community organization which is working with men, right? And I don't know if there's any kind of distinction between men and women in terms of how suicide is chosen as a solution. But you're working with men specifically. What is it that you're finding is effective?

WOODS: Well, one of the things that is effective is just getting that information out to the men, giving them the capacity, to, one, recognize it, and two, be able to guide an individual or themselves toward those resources that are available. I mean looking here at a chart of risk factors and it does say that being male is a risk factor. Could you speak to that?

VANDERSTAD: Yes. Men are typically more likely to attempt and die by suicide. Women on the other hand are more likely to attempt and actually live through the attempt.

ST. JOHN: Ah.

VANDERSTAD: And the main reason is that men are typically more likely to use a violent or lethal means, where women typically use a less violent or lethal means to attempt to take their lives

ST. JOHN: All right. So now what kind of help could you suggest that people turn to if they can see that some of these warning signs are coming up and that they are concerned? Where should people go?

VANDERSTAD: Well, there's two different avenues. Obviously in an individual is personally struggling with suicidal thoughts, the most important thing is to reach out for help. This could include calling the national suicide prevention life line or referring themselves to a local crisis center such as the axis and crisis line here in San Diego. If you fear someone may take their life, again, the most penitentiary thing is to speak up, to stay with that person, to make sure that they get help. Oftentimes, we've found in suicide attempts is that the majority of the times, the individual is not looking to end their life. They're looking to end the pain they're going through. So if we can find the resources and enable them to end that pain, they're less likely to end their own lives

ST. JOHN: And what about the issue of taking their childrens' lives? What could possibly motivate someone to do that?

VANDERSTAD: As I talked about before, when you're suffering from a depression, especially major depression is that you get stuck in this telescopic vision and you can't see outside. And you get focused on very few things and can't realize the greater picture. And that greater picture is that with help comes hope. And will with help, things do get better

ST. JOHN: Maybe you've had some experience with a relative or a friend and you've actually found some help that has been able to avert a tragedy. We'd like to hear from you. 1-888-895-5727. To speak with our guests, Kenneth wood who is with the City Heights dad's club for price charities. And also a steering committee member for the San Diego domestic violence council. And we also have Jessica Vanderstad who's with the American foundation for suicide prevention. So Ken, though, you're with the steering committee for the domestic violence council. Is that, domestic violence, is that intertwined with suicide?

WOODS: Absolutely. Often there's a history of domestic violence, jealousy, where a homicide/suicide has taken part. So it's a direct link, if you will.

ST. JOHN: So how is this class action between the two of you working? Are you finding that actually domestic violence and suicide are two things that have been dealt with in -- separately in the past, and now there's a benefit to you working together?

WOODS: Absolutely, absolutely. With the two working together, we're able to over come certain situations that as individuals we would not be able to handle.

ST. JOHN: Was there any evidence that there was domestic violence in the cases that we've seen in in San Diego in the last few years

WOODS: And that I don't know

ST. JOHN: Because you don't want to be talking about specifics here

WOODS: Correct.

ST. JOHN: But that is one of the risk factors that is correct if domestic violence is involved, it could a red flag that that could be one of the options. So what is it that you're doing apt the dad's club that might be helpful in this situation?

WOODS: One of the things that we're doing is we are building capacity in the fathers, helping them recognize the signs of domestic violence, recognizing the signs of depression, as well as giving them the information on how to get to those resources in the event that themselves or a friend or someone they know needs that help.

ST. JOHN: There is a hot line, I know. Do you want to give out the number of the hot line?

WOODS: Absolutely, the San Diego domestic violence hot line is 1888 DV links, and that's 8883854657.

ST. JOHN: Okay. And our producer Megan Burke here has collected some helpful phone numbers that we can offer you on our website at the Midday Edition.org. You'll find more resources there. Do you feel like there's a bit of a misconception, Jessica, in terms of the amount of focus we put on trying to find the reason, whereas actually the reason like we were saying before is really just a trigger? And what we should be doing is focusing deeper?

VANDERSTAD: Yes, very much so. San Diego County has actually increased efforts to really create a campaign of recognizing the warning signs of suicide, and particularly of depression. It's called the up to us campaign. And it's actually -- they have their very own website that really forms a collaborative of different organizations offering their services from the domestic violence council to the American foundation for suicide prevention. As you mentioned before, if we can create this collaborative effort, we can provide resources for families, for individuals that no matter what they're struggling with that obviously suicide does not become the ultimate option, that they can seek help, they can get help, and they can, you know, find hope again

ST. JOHN: And I think that what's interesting about this is that when we hear about these murder suicides, we often think, well, perhaps it is because of the financial pressures, and the economy is causing it. But what we need to realize is that that isn't the root of the problem, that something else is the root of the problem. That's just the trigger. So the fear of, like, well, I don't know how to solve my financial problems is no reason to not be there for somebody, that there are at a deeper level people can be helped. And you are there to say that there are resources that you can call on. Can you give us a website where people could go and find some resources if they're committed to helping neighbors or friends?

VANDERSTAD: Definitely. The first the national suicide prevention life line. It's 1800273 talk, or 18002738255. This is a 24-hour a day, seven-day a week hotline. You can call for yourself or for someone that you're worried about. Another great website is the website for the American foundation for suicide prevention, our website, our website, it's ASFP.org. And this is a great website not only to learn more about risk signs or warning signs but also if you've been personally impacted by suicide, lost someone to suicide, to get connected with other survivors and really understand that you're not alone

ST. JOHN: Well, I'd like to thank both of you for coming in, that's Ken wood of the dad's club and the San Diego domestic violence council. Thanks so much Ken

WOODS: Thank you.

ST. JOHN: And Jessica Vanderstad for the American foundation for suicide prevention. Thank you so much for listening.