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04 July 2024

Exploring the connection between mental health and filicide in South Africa

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

The murder of a defenceless child is incomprehensible, especially when committed by a parent or guardian. Research has shown that tackling filicide requires confronting and addressing complex mental health issues and societal structures. In February 2024, the HSRC Connect video series and the HSRC Podcast each hosted a panel discussion where researchers highlighted current understandings of filicide drivers in South Africa. Jessie-Lee Smith and Antoinette Oosthuizen report on the insights and potential solutions discussed in these panels.

Photo by Alexa from Pixabay

On a Sunday evening in September 2023, Ntombizanele Mntizela (35) took her four children to a forest near Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape. The next morning, Mntizela was reportedly found dead alongside Iyapha (13), Inga (8) and Phila (3) after ingesting deadly agricultural rat poison and feeding it to her children. The fourth child, an 11-year-old girl, managed to escape by pretending to be dead.

In the days that followed, it became apparent that Mntizela had been struggling with financial problems and depression for some time.

Throughout history, such tragic incidents of filicide – when parents or guardians kill their own children – have shocked communities. These acts are deemed incomprehensible, and talking about the causes and prevention may be particularly difficult in communities where many of the reported contributing factors are prevalent.

Recently, the HSRC’s Dr Gadija Khan joined experts in an HSRC Connect panel discussion and on the HSRC Podcast to explore the complexities of this type of crime. This followed the earlier publication of an HSRC desktop report on filicide.

Khan emphasised that filicide occurs across various cultures, geographic locations, and socio-economic conditions. South Africa is one of only a few developing nations that are conducting in-depth research into the underlying causes and potential solutions to filicide.

According to a study by the South African Medical Research Council, an estimated 454 children under the age of five were victims of homicide in South Africa in 2009. This estimate was based on data from 38 medico-legal laboratories, mortuary files, autopsy reports, as well as child and perpetrator data from police interviews. The study found that 74.4% of these victims were under the age of one, more than half of them were four weeks and younger, and the majority died within the first six days of their lives. Among the newborn group, the most common manner of homicide was death due to abandonment, accounting for 84.9% of cases.

In the Connect episode, Khan highlighted that the motives behind filicide often involve complex psychological influences, many of which stem from maladaptive coping mechanisms. “Many mothers who perpetrate filicide do so because they feel overwhelmed and unsupported, particularly by their child’s father, leading to the burden of child-rearing becoming too much to tolerate,” Khan told the Review. “This strain is often compounded by financial difficulties as well as untreated mental health disorders such as depression.”

On the HSRC Podcast, Khan emphasised the importance of filicide research in shaping effective policies and preventive measures. She explained that males often commit filicide through violent and impulsive acts known as revenge killings. These acts are carried out to punish the child’s mother for perceived wrongdoing and often occur when the parental relationship dissolves and the father perceives that his access to the children is threatened.

Researchers from Stellenbosch University analysed 20 cases of revenge filicide offenders who had killed 42 children. The researchers suggested that the inability to control a situation and extreme emotional distress can lead to “blinding anger”, which results in revenge filicide. In that sample, one of the most common methods of killing was using rat poison.

An HSRC analysis of media-reported filicide cases revealed that the three most common methods of killing were poisoning (27%), followed by strangulation and suffocation (using hands, a rope or a plastic bag) and assault (beating with hands without any objects or bludgeoning with sharp or blunt objects, e.g. with a sledgehammer, an axe or rocks), both at 15%.

In a recent HSRC policy brief, Khan and her research team recommend that entities such as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, local government authorities, and trade licensing agencies can mitigate the risks of poisoning through stricter and more precise methods of poison control, regulation, and surveillance.

They also emphasised the need for responsible agencies such as the Office of the Family Advocate and local family mediation organisations to enhance the visibility and accessibility of their services. These mediation services include consultations and interventions between parents and couples, which can help to mitigate violent outcomes. Similarly, it was deemed necessary to expand trauma and mental health counselling in areas that have high rates of gender-based violence and intimate partner violence.

Exacerbated by socioeconomic conditions, many South Africans still grapple with a cycle of generational trauma stemming from years of national segregation and poverty. During the HSRC Connect panel discussion, Khan explained that mental health services are often lacking in areas where they are most needed. Additionally, many perpetrators are diagnosed with severe mental illness only during the forensic assessments they undergo to identify their criminal liability.

Researchers examined the forensic files of 32 women admitted for forensic psychiatric observation in Pretoria before going to trial for the murder or the attempted murder of children. Only 13 were found to have no mental illness. Of the nine women with psychotic illness and the eight with mood disorders, only three and two, respectively, had received prior treatment. Five cases involved women with both conditions. In many cases, relationship problems and family conflict were identified as contributing factors, and most of the women had used weapons and poisoning to commit the acts. 

Khan pointed out that even when mental health services are available, cultural stigmas and pressures often discourage struggling parents from reaching out for help. She and her team highlight in their desktop report that mental health practitioners should focus on equipping parents with adaptive and functional coping styles. Additionally, there is a crucial need for early screening of mental health conditions to ensure timely intervention and support.

Not merely a matter of criminal activity but a complex socio-economic and mental health challenge, the HSRC team also called for policymakers to revise existing legislation and increase access to mental health and mediation services. Despite its uncomfortable nature, more people need to join the collection of voices speaking up about the realities of this issue, Khan said during the podcast discussion. She encouraged the South African public to seek help for psychological distress and to share their parenting or relationship struggles with family members, friends, and neighbours to foster a culture of destigmatisation and community support.

Research contacts:

Dr Gadija Khan (senior research specialist), Dr Mokhantšo Makoae (research director), Noncedo Maphosho (PhD research trainee), and Dimpho Makitla (DSI-HSRC intern) in HSRC’s Developmental Capable and Ethical State division

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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