Dr Liz Gordon: Migration, mental health and murder

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Three issues of major national concern came together this week in the unlikely story of a mother and new migrant, alleged to have killed all three of her children inside their new home. The father allegedly arrived home at around 10pm and found the three children dead.

It is, unfortunately, not uncommon for parents to murder their children. There are a number of triggers for this, but the most common is estranged fathers who take the view “if I can’t have you, no-one will”.  Our minds stray to the missing dad and his three kids out West.  Are they camping somewhere remote?  Did they have a terrible accident?  Or did he decide to end it for himself and his children?  Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

We also think about the Lynnmall supermarket attacker, a refugee, torture victim and person with a dangerous psychosis.  There is little doubt that New Zealand failed in its duty of care to this man in some way and paid a huge price for this. With the crisis in mental health care, I wonder how many other very damaged refugees and others are on the streets, collecting extremist ideologies along the way and becoming more and more dangerous. 

And the Dunedin supermarket bloke, who was apparently in some kind of delusion that ‘the witches’ were after him. One of these perpetrators called a terrorist, the other not. Both, pretty certainly, mentally unwell.

It is relatively uncommon for women to murder their children. Where such incidents take place, there is often a significant background of violence, perhaps drug-taking or alcohol abuse, lack of coping and other problems.

It is very unusual for such an event to occur in a high-functioning professional family, where both parents are doctors, starting a new life voluntarily in Aotearoa. It immediately raises potential questions about the mental health of the mother.  As she has been charged with murder, it would not be proper to speculate on that further. Just to say that the term, reactive psychosis, which is now pretty well out of fashion, allows for the possibility that someone can appear normal in the morning and kill their children later in the day.

There have been similar cases in living memory (of those of us who are older). In 1979, a woman called Elizabeth McKenzie, from Canterbury, was arrested for the killing of her three children. The facts were quite similar, on the face of it.  Her husband, a dentist, arrived home to find that his wife had killed all three of their children.  There was a lot of talk in the community at that time about how terrible for a husband to arrive home to that, and I guess people will say the same now.

Elizabeth had a history of depression and she was remanded to Sunnyside Hospital for an assessment. It later came out that she had recently rung Sunnyside, asking to see her psychiatrist, and was told there was a long waiting list.  A failure of mental health services, more than 40 years ago? Very likely.

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Elizabeth stood trial for murder.  It came out at her trial that she had suffered from depression for her whole life, as had her mother.  In her mind, at the time of the killing, she had not wanted them to go through what she had gone through.  By killing them, she thought she was protecting them from a future of depression and mental illness.

Her psychiatrist wrote to the court that she met the legal test of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’, which was one of three potential outcomes, along with guilty or not guilty of murder.  The jury had to decide.  As a result of the evidence, they did find her not guilty by reason of insanity, and ws.  There was a lot of sniping in the media at the time that she had got off ‘scot free’, but in fact she spent many years locked up in Sunnyside. I don’t know when she was finally discharged.

As her mental health improved in hospital, she then had to face the horror that she had killed all her children in a psychotic event. The realisation was, of course, worse than the actual sentence. 

Did emigrating to New Zealand trigger some kind of psychotic episode for the mother?  Did she have a pre-existing mental illness, and, if so, did Immigration NZ know about it?  Or did something else entirely happen?

I expect that she will eventually stand trial.  I notice she has been remanded to a secure facility, which I hope is a mental health facility and not a prison. I feel for her.  Whatever triggered what she did (if she did it), a year or two on remand in a woman’s prison system overflowing with remand prisoners and very short on mental health treatment facilities, will be another hell she may have to go through. She will find little empathy there, and will be alone in a strange land.

I feel also for the husband.  What a thing to come home to, only a week into a new life that must have felt full of promise.

So many of the shocking stories we hear about come back to the common denominator of a lack of access to effective mental health care for those that need it. Our TDB colleague, Dave McPherson and his partner Jane Stevens have campaigned tirelessly for years for better mental health care.  Spend more on mental health, spend less on prisons. However, as my alert readers will point out, the government poured millions into mental health services and virtually none of it has been spent.

There must be a better way.

 

Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.

50 COMMENTS

  1. No doubt I will get roasted for this but:
    There is a great deal of difference about how such a terrible event is analysed according to whether the perpetrator is male or female.
    When it is a man who kills his kids he is simply a monster, and certain groups of our society portray the incident as proof that all adult males (especially if they are European descended) are potential murdering scum. There will be no sympathy for him and any mental issues that he might have had.
    But when a woman does it, the media is full of platitudes about “the poor woman losing it” and that is wasn’t really her fault – society was to blame for not helping her, etc. We will all be urged to show sympathy for her condition.
    When a man does something like this he is just a murderous devil.
    But it is a mental health issue if a woman does it.
    The Stuff woke brigade are already right on it.

    • Thanks for this Mike. Yes, I think you are right, men are given a harder time. But the empirical reality is that a proportion of men kill partners, ex-partners and sometimes their children out of revenge, the attitude that if I can’t have them, no-one can. This probably taints the perceptions of the rest. However, you have rather overplayed your hand with “all adult males…”. You are a bright fella and know that is not true.
      Women can be vindictive when relationships end, too. But they rarely plot to kill their blokes and wipe out whole families.

    • Mike – There have been quite a few cases recently wth Aotearoa females involved in horrific beatings, torturing, and murders, bad people, whether mentally deficient, psycho, or downright evil. To a certain extent you are correct though, in that almost anything bad that happens is leapt upon by the identity politics people, and attributed to the effects of “colonisation”, enabling perpetrators to avoid taking responsibility for their behaviour. It is not necessarily correct and racist.

      The deficiencies in the mental health system again divert attention from the real issue, which is that New Zealand has so many people with mental health issues, some created by a sick society, and some more complex, but when it concerns publicly named people, those not directly involved aren’t necessarily in the best position to comment and risk upsetting bereft and living whanau.

    • Not just woman are getting a free ride, but also the portrayal of the mall terrorist seems to be ‘poor him” unlike the CHCH terrorist. Identity politics are everywhere.

      Someone said the mall terrorist enquiry scope is only a few years, but he was in NZ for 10 years. So no interest in actually finding out and preventing the next terrorist attack then by learning any lessons from this one and the likely truth over the entire time and before he came here.

      With Tarrant the information was largely redacted, so no public scrutiny. No wonder within a few years, we have another terror attack here. They are already trying to say Samsudeen was just mentally ill. But unlike Ashley Peacock who never said he wanted to hurt anyone, the NZ governments did manage to keep Ashely in solitary against his will for 20 years ,but it was against Samsudeen rights to get an assessment and detain him. Sounds like the system isn’t working very well.

  2. Back off, Liz. Mrs McKenzie was a neighbour of mine in Strowan. Both our children attended Waimari School, where my husband and I were fairly actively involved, although I didn’t know Mrs MCKenzie herself personally. Full facts aren’t always reported in the newspapers, and sometimes they do not even make it to trial, but I do believe that you’ve got one fact wrong here, and one major omission.

    That was a terrible neighbourhood tragedy for so many. At a subsequent dinner party, a stranger- woman accused me of being responsible for it, saying that had I supported that mother, then she mightn’t have killed her children. The Timaru family happenings have brought it all back again, but I know enough to know that none of us know very much at all, that we best respect everyone involved by not speculating about them, that this is not a particularly welcoming country to strangers from off -shore, and that my tears this morning are nothing compared to the horrific shadows cast forevermore by these little girls’ deaths. We know nothing.

    • Hi SW. I am a bit confused. My account of the McKenzie case came from the court trial, not the media, including the psychiatric evidence. It was wholly supportive of Elizabeth and her plight. My point was about mental illness in the community. It must have been terrible for you to be accused of not offering such support, but that is rubbish. It was well-established that Elizabeth (and her mother) suffered from a debilitating form of generational depression. You can stand tall – no acquaintance could have prevented that tragedy.

      • I understand the comments about the availability of mental health services and the determination (or not) to improve them.

        As Snow White says, we know nothing. And we do not know that NZ having the best mental health services in the world and Timaru as a city having the best services in the country would have prevented the Timaru tragedy.

        Certainly, demand significant improvements are made so that there is easy access to appropriate help to not have such a terrible thing happen again.

        Certainly learn what we can from the investigation of circumstances around the incident. But let’s take a lot of deep breaths first.

    • Snow White: “That was a terrible neighbourhood tragedy for so many.”

      It was indeed. I heard about it from a relative who has lived in ChCh, and in that area, for many years. Said relative was very involved with Plunket, and if I remember rightly, Mrs McKenzie’s state of mind was characterised as post-natal psychosis. It’s a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same case: I remember that the husband was a dentist. However: some of the detail I heard then was different from the above account.

      Some years later, I asked my relative about that case. I was told he’d moved to Australia, while she was still in Sunnyside, with, at that stage, little prospect of release. I have no idea what’s happened since.

      • D’ Esterre, Yes, Mrs McKenzies’ husband was a dentist, and I believe she had double degrees, and I really don’t want to say more – it came about quite quickly, and as in Timaru, an incomprehensible family tragedy became public fodder. Cheers.

        • Snow White: “…an incomprehensible family tragedy…”

          Both of them unimaginably awful. The rest of us can only feel compassion for all concerned.

    • Absolutely.
      The website ‘ssri stories’ is full of incidents of harm after withdrawal or change of psychotropic medications

      SSRI Stories is a collection of over 7,000 stories most of which were published newspapers or scientific journals. In these stories, prescription antidepressant medications are mentioned. Common to all of them is the possibility – sometimes the near certainty – that the drugs caused or were a contributing factor to some negative outcome: suicide, violence, serious physical problems, bad withdrawal reactions, personality change leading to loss of reputation and relationships, etc.
      https://ssristories.org/

      Also, doctors are the number one career for suicide, and within doctoring psychiatrists lead as a sub group. After doctors is dentists, and vets are very high up too.

      Careers for undiagnosed high functioning autism are doctors, accountants, IT geeks, researchers and I cant remember the rest.

      All this tells me the system is so broken, and few have any grasp of what is at play when these tragic events occur.

      I come from a professional migrant family [2 masters with honours parents] that also crumbled under the wing of mother NZ. And yes I had parents of high functioning neuro-difference, and yes the system only made and continues to make things worse for me as everyone ‘on my case’ is filling out their time sheets only to ‘cover their asses’ in a broken system, and doing nothing helpful for vulnerable people in need.

      Its a fucking mess. I googled ‘capitalism is a death cult’ recently…. so resigned to the sad reality of the situation.

      • Thanks for that response. What % of the economy relies on negative events? Otherwise profits not made, jobs cease to exist..

        My comments are of a general nature and are tangential to this Timaru tragedy.

        • Yep bang on again See-er, no money to be made on fixing people. Revolving door medicine is what its been called for decades.

          Leaky homes, cars that breakdown aka VW auto transmissions, human resources firms encouraging continual job change due to a percentage finders fee each time resulting in employer reskill costs and unhappy workers. Its endless dude, not just big farmer.

          Almost all animal product industries. As well as being unsustainable to waterways and climate, a plant based diet produces less ill health. Tell that to NZ farmers and Font error as well as medical.

          I suppose that does make capitalism a death cult of sorts.

  3. Also with health care, it is vitally important that checks are made every step of the way with immigration and training. NZ desperately need doctors, but one of the UK biggest murders was a doctor, aka Shipman. (I’m not suggesting that is the case here, due to the evidence so far, aka children/post pregnancy). We had our first even doctor trained in NZ, (with many signs things were not right) murder a teenager.

    On the flip side, having doctors held in limbo in NZ who seem to be doing well and having no issues not get NZ PR, while criminals are given residency before them in a pandemic, suggests something is very wrong. As is bring more doctors in, while not processing doctors who are already working successfully in NZ quickly.

    Clearly NZ has a big problem with checks and the bovine paper shuffling is not working, against any practicality of favourable societal result.

    Another enquiry, perhaps.

    After the meth committee scandal where government allowed committees with vested interests set the meth standards instead of scientists, it might be time to give Gluckman a call on the immigration problems and have someone smart have a look at it… He managed to work out what a croc the phony meth standards were, but a bit late for renters.

  4. Thanks for this Liz, I remember the case in 1979, terribly sad, and just as then I felt deeply sorry for the mother (as I did for the father) who one day would realise what she had done. And it will be the same for this woman I am sure. I was dismayed that all of the comments on TV were about the father, of course he has to face this to, and no comments with any sort of compassion or sadness towards the mother.

    I was horrified that a woman took her 10? year old daughter to the gates where flowers were being laid and the daughter was then interviewed, this is nuts nuts nuts. No kid of that age needs to know this. My grandchildren of similar ages do not see TV news.

    I remember finding out as a 10 year old roughly, in the fifties, that a kid in Sydney whose parents had won the big raffle had been kidnapped for money. I was terrified ‘might I be kidnapped’ the thoughts that go through a kids head.

  5. An excellent Post @ Dr LG. The word Erudite springs to mind.
    I can’t, and won’t follow the details of what happened in Timaru. I refuse to let such an appalling horror into my hard earned peace of mind.
    Where money ( and the power it enables in the spiritually weak. ) is given status above humaneness every negative dysfunction, every scary psychosis, every awful narrative, and the terrible consequences for those affected, becomes a money earning commodity within a capitalist democracy, such as ours. ” If it bleeds it leads” right?
    As I write multi billionaires are being given AO/NZ citizenship. All they have to do is cough up a scant few million. Is that our government behaving in a manner that takes, we, the people’s best interests closest to heart? The owner of Ikea has just bought 5000 hectares of Otago farm land to plant trees on. 5000 hectares would have been quite the city build to house homeless people to enable them to become self sufficient organic food producers, for example.
    Is it safe to assume then ( It’s never safe to assume, I know that. ) that by depriving people of help and support who are high-risk is essentially harvesting them for the news worthy value of their certain down fall and their impact they have on their victims?
    Do you watch Russell Brand’s Youtube channel?
    The guy’s a bit of a tonic and he interviews some very interesting people.
    Here’s an example of what I mean.
    “How Global Puppet Masters Created a NEW WORLD ORDER”
    https://youtu.be/UmBPoL0JY4E
    Immense, deviously manage financial wealth appears to open a door into a kind of underworld. I don’t necessarily mean a demonic underworld where there are beasts or monsters although nothing would surprise me. I mean a human-spirit underworld and not that God Bothery one.
    Which comes first Dr LG? Madness then money? Or money then madness?

  6. The horror and the despair is agonising to contemplate and the great sorrow is for the innocent kids, both in the South Island and probably in the north. Agree with you on the mental illness of the attackers, they were definitely failed by mental health lack of services it would clearly seem. Psychosis of the parents by circumstances that made their lives unbearable is another matter probably too difficult to anticipate… reactive psychosis sounds about as good an explanation as any and certainly there is no sound reasoning that leads to the harm and death of otherwise presumably loved children.

  7. UPDATE: The woman has been sent to Hillmorton (once was Sunnyside) for an assessment. This is good. The initial assessment will be whether she is fit to stand trial. It is almost certain she will be deemed fit (it is a very low bar). I believe that an application can be made to keep her in secure psychiatric care during remand, so that may happen.

  8. Utterly heart breaking scenario in Timaru. My heart goes out to the husband and wider whanau and the children’s mother. Given what we know about this family, most likely she has had a brief reactive psychosis or else psychotic depression.

    As we know stress precipitates both in people who have biological vulnerability.

    The Dunedin man who stabbed shoppers may have been mentally ill. Up to psychiatrists to determine.

    The Auckland terrorist, as he is referred to, not all people who commit such acts are mentally ill. He refused psychology input in prison, but it is possible there is a forensic evaluation of him which has been done.

  9. Stresses in life – Shifting house, country is a high stress situation:
    * The secure background of the mother was based on being in South Africa near family and with access to reliable daily child care or au pairs. Without it her life was not secure. Lauren has been described as a very soft, introverted person.
    “I cannot comprehend what happened – she is a medical doctor and she wasn’t arrogant or anything like that. She was very humble,” said former colleague and neighbour, Natasja le Roux.
    She said the couple struggled to conceive their children.
    “They waited years for those children because she had troubles with fertility and stuff, so it really is a big shock,” she said.
    She said Lauren had a lot of support when she was in SA.
    She was very humble…”Those children, that family, are like my own. I was in their house…I went on holiday with them. [The parents] never argued. They were two darlings. What could have gone wrong?” she said…

    The only sign Dickason may have been distressed came in a cryptic Facebook post in March, which referred to the mental illness suffered by Hollywood stars like Demi Lovato, Robin Williams and Carrie Fisher.
    She underlined a section in red which read: “Unfortunately we live in a world where if you break a bone everyone comes to sign the cast but if you tell people you’re depressed they run the other way.”
    https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/south-africa/2021-09-17-they-waited-years-for-those-children-neighbour-and-colleague-speak-after-woman-charged-with-nz-murders/

    There are studies on life events and how they cause stress particularly when multiplied:
    Here are some: Feelings of stress are normally triggered by things happening in your life which involve: being under lots of pressure. facing big changes. worrying about something. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/stress/causes-of-stress/
    Another informative site: https://drewadelman.com/life-transitions

    I note the Colin Bouwer case of professional South Africans coming here with problems.
    The prosecution said Bouwer murdered her [his wife] because of his affair with another Dunedin psychiatrist, Anne Walsh, and for a substantial insurance payout. After his father was convicted, Bouwer jnr said his father found it easier to run away than face his responsibilities….
    Then the son strangled his wife in South Africa. Then his mother ….
    https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/the-colin-bouwer-case-a-fatal-betrayal/DHYB35ER7IIHNUORPIC5PI5QQQ/

  10. Putting aside the mental health issue of the mother, I am appalled and disgusted by the news media, especially Stuff, publishing photos of the children and the mother. I think it is a gross violation of the privacy of the deceased children. I know there is probably no such privacy issue legally but surely there is no public interest in publishing the photos. In fact I think the names and details of the case should be suppressed until the case is heard before a judge but that is too late now. It is heart wrenching enough to read the details of the case, without seeing photos of the victims. Or as a Grandad with grandkids of a similar age am I being too sensitive??

    • Your not being too sensitive. It was distasteful to say the least. I too felt yuck seeing that pic, though not sure why. Probably because each little face was so innocent and joyful, including the mother’s. Just truly sad. And sad to see their little smiling faces knowing the tragedy they are all suffering/suffered being used as click bait. The media should never have shown that particular pic. Small concession they didn’t show a pic of the dad. The wider family need their privacy, as does the mother. The little girls should be given every dignity and be protected now at least.

    • You are being too sensitive. It is public interest if someone is murdered on NZ shores that their situation is in the media. If the children had lived, it would be different. Sadly that is not the case.

    • Retep. I agree with you 100%, and I don’t think that you are being too sensitive. You are showing respect for the living and respect for the dead, which is as it should be.

      These are and were people living their lives, real people, not comic book characters. The showing of family pictures and stories does nothing to help address what has occurred, and it may add to the grief of the survivors; it is not in the public interest, but whets the appetite of ghouls and helps sell newspapers in the grubby social community which the equally-grubby msm boot-licks for its dollars.

    • Retep. You’re right, it’s an obscene invasion of this tragic family’s privacy, but modern faux journalists focus on their own feelings, oblivious to human decency. They want the reader to know their feelings and I for one, aren’t interested, especially when they care nothing for the feelings of their fodder.

      No photos of the child deceased McKenzie children or their home, graced the Christchurch papers in 1979. Back then, journalists trained on the job in cadet or apprentice type scenarios, they were more mature, and much more professional than today’s polytech products. Frequently they knew more than they chose to write about. The Christchurch “ Press” in particular was a high calibre independent morning newspaper, and Dunedin’s ODT, may be the only contemporary equivalent ; the Stuff cowboys trying to drag us down to gutter level are best avoided – I don’t know anyone who buys the print papers now.

    • No Retep, You’re not being too sensitive. You are showing respect. You are being a decent person, unlike
      the Stuff females who have invaded a family’s privacy in a particularly crass and vile manner.

  11. I’m pessimistic about the situation here simply because I don’t believe we would ever have adequate services for mental health. It’s the world we live in. I was born in 1951 and life was simple. No internet, most had work and worked less hours. Mother’s and wives generally didn’t work. Only the well off had cars. There was physical punishment in schools and for the most part those that got it new they deserved it. Although this sounds horrific life was pretty good. Every town had a post office and most a hospital. There was little crime and you could count murders on one hand.way less mental issues brought on by depression. I’m generalising of course but trying to make a point. A lot has changed. Stress. Our health system can’t pay for all the new drugs and technology, and the shitty lives many live today mean mental health is out of control. Yes we need to improve but I don’t think it’s realistic to screen everyone. Yes have better access but many who commit suicide unfortunately go off their medication even with the best medical care. There is no easy answer to this issue and in my opinion picking through cases we think we know about isn’t helpful.

  12. Turn away, look in the other direction. Taking an interest in our fellow citizens and the stresses that show up in everybody’s lives, whether over-achievers or under-achievers, that is not done! Carefully look the other way and don’t acknowledge the pig’s muddle that we are making of the 21st century, having not learned how to fix our ideas on just having a decent life and being on good terms with one another, in the 20th century.

  13. I think its a bit early to blame this on the lack of mental health care for this women. She was only here for a week (in the community anyway) being a doctor and recently recruited they could have had access to help if they had asked. I understand the attraction to use it to highlight Nz’s lack of mental health care, but blaming it on that is not truthful or helpful in explaining her actions.

    • Kim, Yes you are right. And there are some things which mental health services cannot prevent, such as a major epilepsy brought on by something unexpected in much the same way which a stroke can be, and which causes brain changes. I thought the that accommodation looked industrial and concretely ugly compared to the family’s home in Sth Africa, and that water in Timaru can come down icey from the Alps, however picturesque it may all look on brochures.

      • Exactly. This woman was used to having a nanny & a gardener…the change of circumstances, two weeks in MIQ where the staff on low wages are not exactly ultra friendly, weird food, cold weather, we don’t know what else upended her. What are the effects of isolation? the supermarket stabber just demonstrated some of them.
        Women hold up half the world but in this age of the technocrat pretty much every testosterone laden algorithm dumps a whole lot more weight upon the yielding feminine compartment.

        • Jane Post The psycho-social implications for both the little girl with the cleft palate, and for Mr and Mrs Dickason, are also beyond what those of us who have not had the same sort of experiences may be able to begin to comprehend, and so I think that there are times, when we may talk among ourselves about the terrible horror which has happened, but best refrain from public speculation. To me, this is a gross invasion of privacy for both the living and the dead, but I may be a little old -fashioned here. Any published photo or comment has the power to further hurt whanau already massively hurting.

          (Women hold up half the world ? We hold up more than that.). Kia kaha.

    • I raised mental health as a possibility only, as you will see if you re-read. But I think a strong one. Timaru is not the most fantastic place in Aotearoa, but it is a nice coastal town with good facilities. It is reaching a bit to link such a catastrophic event to the circumstances in which they found themselves (stark property and very cold water)! Those twins might have been a bit of a handful (terrible twos and all that) but she could have sought some help. It was their first week of migration, not the end of the world. I am just saying that apart from mental illness, it is inexplicable. Also. her remand to Hillmorton is a clear sign that this is might be an issue. So I wouldn’t bet my life savings on it, but it is likely.

        • I think it’s perfectly legitimate to speculate on this tragedy. Stop being such a wowser just because you’ve had some personal involvement in some similar historical case and therefore feel you have some specially privileged moral position on this story. Most people are interested to know what flaws exist in the human psyche that may account for such abberant behaviour, precisely because it is so unimaginably horrible, like some wild animals that kill their young. Humans are not supposed to behave like this, but sadly occasionally they do. I am certainly intensely interested in any informed speculation from anyone qualified enough to do so, so please just back off Snow White, whoever you are.

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