Saturday, April 4, 2009

Murder-suicide of Kalathat in Rivermark, Santa Clara

This week, Devan Kalathat was a news maker across the world, killing his two kids, his brother-in-law Ashok, as well as Ashok's wife and kid, and finally turning the gun on himself (News). His wife was also shot and is in critical condition in hospital. People all over are shocked, and reactions range from angry, sad, puzzled and surprised that Kalathat could exhibit such madness, and the nerve to kill children. One comment from a family friend that dined often and played rummy with them said Kalthat was a quiet, peaceful guy, and they were a very nice couple. Others describe Kalathat as a sharp and educated engineer, evident from his numerous certifications listed on his LinkedIn profile and engineering jobs at Microsoft and Yahoo, and financially doing just as fine. From the outside, everything looked normal.

For psychiartists, psychologists and other relationship experts, however, this may not be surprising, and they can draw a parallel with many other routine mental disorder related shooting incidents, such as Karthik Rajaram, the MBA that killed his family in LA, the recent Binghamton, NY immigrant shootings, the Canada bus killings or the Virginia university shootings..

Unfortunately, the resulting madness is not something that happens overnight, but due to mental disorder that is groomed and developed over several years - sub-consciously by those around. The victims themselves don't even realize that they have a disorder, but assume they are smart and wise since they have impressive academic record, or professionally
accomplished in their chosen field. Events causing stress or trauma in younger age may have triggered an egoistic reticent behavior (usually misconstrued as just quiet and shy) - examples include overbearing parents, loss of a loved one, major life event such as rape or an accident, or recent stress from unemployment, financial devastation, dealing with a difficult relationship etc. Over time, it develops into mental health issues such as:
  • Depression, with unpredictable mood swings, sadness, loss of interest in any activity etc
  • Bipolar disorder, extremes such as talking too much or too quiet, inappropriate anger etc
  • Borderline personality disorder, with low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, incoherent thinking resulting in senseless arguments etc.

The above are just examples, and I am not sure I got the definitions right - the main idea is such mental illnesses are prevalent but unnoticed or unexplained, and not treated or handled in the right way. In a few cases, it goes further into more traumatic disorders such as,
  • Split personality disorder, where the person relapses at times to assume he is someone else like God or the devil, or a long gone relative etc.
  • Schizophrenia, which is apparently the new scientific term for lunacy.
Family members, or those around in school or office fall into either of the two types below:
  1. They have no clue that the person they are talking to has any disorder, and react in ways that will most likely aggravate the behavior. Still worse, they may seek help from an untrained brother-in-law to deal with the problem or to negotiate a settlement.
  2. They may just have similar disorders, so it becomes a case of two people with mental disorders trying to sort things out! Most contemporary mothers-in-law in India fall into this control freak category, since they have suffered a suppressed low-esteem life in earlier years and guess what happens when they are under the same roof with an immature daughter-in-law that is suffering from mood swings!
Though the science around these behaviors has shaped up, given the current level of awareness, there are sparingly few family members that can identify the person has such mental disorder and influence them to get professional help.

Kalathat's case was an ideal example. Going by his brother's characterization as an intelligent, quiet guy in his younger ages who apparently did not react well to stress and kept away from aggressive people, as well as his wife's call to
police 6 months back that he was holding her passport, showed Kalathat exhibited controlling behavior and there was smoke without fire. Though he appeared an ideal husband and father (there was no physical violence, as well the children went to best private schools), he has been suffering from such mental disorder.

What can we do to prevent such things from happening? Most people will move on after placing flowers and teddy bears, venting their feelings on forums, blogs. Some will take an identity approach, like blaming guns, silicon valley lifestyle, claim domestic violence is rampant in malayali families, or that Indians are losing touch with their culture, or it is a south asian women vs men thing - I have seen these mentioned so far on the web. But this problem is beyond any identity such as malayali, Indian or American, silicon valley lifestyle or even guns.
In India, plenty of this type of murder-suicide of families happen by consuming poison or by falling into a well for similar reasons, but don't get the same coverage, since it is not a Yahoo engineer or Rivermark community family - but a poor, illiterate family in a remote village among a billion population.The real solution lies in the following:
  1. Awareness among the husband, wife or others, so they can identify, handle and react with the individual the right way. A brother-in-law is simply not trained to deal with such problems! We must provide brochures and DVDs that explain these behaviors at the time of wedding, or when issuing spousal visas.
  2. The individual should recognize there is a problem and get professional help. This is difficult to pull off, but sometimes an ultimatum such as divorce might do the trick. Some companies instead send employees to a "Dealing with diffcult personalities" class, when they raise an issue with a co-worker that has such ego problems!
  3. Having right laws to deal with the domestic issues. In this example, Kalathat's wife could have used the "No Fault" divorce laws of California to quickly get out of a non-working marriage, and saved the children and herself. As well, there are wage assignments and restraining orders that would helped get by, and keep him at a distance. Many developing countries lack sensible conflict resolution laws, and instead complicate the situation by dragging them into criminal cases even when the situation is civil in nature.
  4. Going beyond just issuing a marriage license, and monitoring mental health of parents until the children reach 18 years of age. Right now, there is no system in place to detect and prevent such silent abuse or mental disorder build-up cases, and social workers would get involved only when they come to know of a tangible immediate threat of danger. We need a law that forces married couples (or separated parents) to submit to an basic annual assessment to show they are physically, financially and mentally fit to take care of children each year.
It will take more years for the solutions to fly. In the near-term, people will be unaware and inexperienced and will contribute to more such instances. Out of love, spouses will not easily file a divorce and continue to put themselves and their children in danger. Changes in the law are slow and will not likely be accepted, since people will care more about privacy, and the logic that these are likely to be rare cases - until then, these are only worth the flowers or teddy bears, and a few minutes of venting anger and opinions on blog comments.

I hope people become more aware of the magnitude of the problem and get the right perspective on such family situations, and influence troubled couples to seek professional help, rather than throw out an opinion based on culture, religion, the value of marriage, making adjustments and so on!

My heartfelt condolences to the extended Kalathat family.

2 comments:

skygold64 said...

Your explanation is 180 degrees off the mark. So-called mental disorders have never been shown to precipitate murder. However, the antidepressants used to "treat" mental disorders have warnings and bans on them issued by international governments because they HAVE been shown to cause suicide and violence.

skygold64 said...

Your explanation is 180 degrees off the mark. So-called mental disorders have never been shown to precipitate murder. However, the antidepressants used to "treat" mental disorders have warnings and bans on them issued by international governments because they HAVE been shown to cause suicide and violence.