'Coercive Suicide': Identifying the Suicidal Mass Killer


It has become increasingly obvious that suicide and mass killings are intertwined.

Suicide evaluation should become a tool for threat assessment. A brief mnemonic device [see below] can help police and other authorities decide if a person is a danger to himself and others.

A good example is the opportunity that police had in April 2014 when the parents of Elliott Rodger, a 22-year-old California college student, asked for a welfare check. Officers visited his apartment and had a brief conversation with Rodger. They concluded that he seemed stable.

However, police training for such evaluations is superficial. Although these officers did what was required, their resulting judgment was wrong.

Rodger was highly disturbed. Three weeks later, he went on a suicidal murder spree in Isla Vista, California. He killed 6 and injured 14 before killing himself.

His plan had been more ambitious. He wanted to kill all of the young women in a particular University of California-Santa Barbara sorority house. Distressed that he could not attract the type of girlfriend he believed he deserved, he had decided to make them pay for his misery.

Perpetrators of mass murder now often accept—even prefer—suicide as the culmination of their deed.

In light of the suicidal mass-murder incidents over the past few years, it's time to train officers in better evaluation methods. Should they get the opportunity to check on a potentially dangerous individual, a brief conversation is inadequate. Tools in suicidology are available to help better identify those who show the warning signs, and law enforcement personnel should be trained in their use.

A high percentage of recent mass killers were known to be depressed, angry, withdrawn, unstable, and unhappy with their lives, or were primed to view suicidal terrorism as a noble cause.

Suicide has increasingly become a part of ideological or punitive mass murder.

I call this “coercive suicide.” Some of these killers hope to make a public show of their death as a “lesson,” a religious statement, and/or a way to gain fame. They need to include others in their death plan, often as many as possible, to achieve their goal.

With the exception of suicide for a noble cause (which has a different set of evaluation principles), the signals of a potentially suicidal mass murderer can be linked to a collection of factors that are statistically significant in risk assessments. A fantasy becomes an obsession, mixed with the need for control. When it evolves into a clear and specific plan of action that inspires preparation, violence against others is likely to occur.

If a desire for fame is present, the action will likely target a crowded public place. If such people feel trapped or hopeless, they will more likely kill themselves.

The fantasy often forms early in life, due to a disappointing circumstance. The person grew angry and pondered revenge or punishment, which brought relief, satisfaction and greater control. They felt better blaming others. To maintain the feeling of satisfaction, they developed plans.

Some mass murder fantasies are victim-specific, but others involve a symbolic target, such as a location or an employee in a specific occupation that has drawn their anger. Their behavioral signals leak their intent.

So how can police be better trained in what to look for?

The American Association of Suicidology offers a mnemonic device for performing a quick evaluation of the warning signs. The phrase to remember is this: “IS PATH WARM.” Each letter stands for a specific indicator:

I Ideation
S Substance Abuse

P Purposelessness
A Anxiety
T Trapped
H Hopelessness

W Withdrawal
A Anger
R Recklessness
M Mood Changes

Those at high risk will often show a number of these indicators, which can be ascertained with a series of questions to friends, coworkers and acquaintances. They might have prior attempts or threats, or talk a lot about suicide. They might increase their alcohol or drug use, be more withdrawn, show a lack of purpose, or talk about feeling trapped with no way out. They have a “game over” mentality and might have trouble sleeping or taking care of themselves. Rage and the desire to punish, when coupled with these other indicators, is particularly alarming, especially with agitation, mood swings and increased recklessness.

The formula provides a deeper evaluation than is currently used by police for the potential to harm oneself and others. It requires doing more than talking to the target individual. Friends, family, and coworkers will have noticed key behaviors. Officers, or a team of risk evaluators, can also look at the person's online presence. Quite often, they will express their anger, anxiety, depression, and musings about self-destruction. This is called leakage.

Although not meant as a full evaluation, IS PATH WARM does offer information that officers can use to alert the individual's family or make a referral for intervention.

A quick analysis of Elliott Rodger, which could have been gleaned from his family, his video blog online, and a more structured set of queries, shows “Yes” in 7 of the 10 areas. Despite what he said to reassure officers, the truth lies in his behavior: He was depressed, angry, withdrawn, hopeless, and had made past threats for murder and suicide. His overriding purpose seemed to be rooted in punishing others for having better lives than he did.

His sense of entitlement, evident in his videos, ensured that his anger would burn hot.

In a resolution approved at its 2014 conference, the International Association of Chiefs of Police called for “mandated treatment of the mentally ill.” At a panel discussion I attended, speakers called on police to make this the decade in which officers must learn more about mental illness and how to better handle such people.

A lesson in suicidology for risk assessment should be part of their training.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland directs the Master of Arts program in criminal justice at DeSales University and is the author of 58 books, including Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. She writes a blog for Psychology Today at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shadow-boxing. She welcomes readers' comments.

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