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Don’t Give Up the Fight – Blog #20: The Homicide-Suicide among The Desmond Military Family: A Few Facts Uncovered / Stigma & Mental Illness

Blog #20 The Homicide-Suicide among The Desmond Military Family: A Few Facts Uncovered

Dr. Antoon A. Leenaars

I signed off with Blog #19, on June 25, 2016, till my civilian service was needed. It is now needed on the occasion of the tragic deaths of Aaliyah, Shanna, and Brenda Desmond. They died by homicide. It is also needed because of Lionel Desmond’s suicide that occurred after the homicides. This tragedy was certified, through Death Scene Investigation (DSI), I belief, as homicides-suicide (H-S). Lionel Desmond was a veteran; he served with the Second Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment. Lionel served in Afghanistan for an eight-month tour in 2007. He was known and treated for a mental injury, PTSD, based on the information that I now have (MacDonald, Jan. 5, 2017; Bissett & MacDonald, Jan. 6, 2017). At least since the American Civil War, we have known (but not always remembered): Suicide is a cost of service. Homicide is a cost of service too. Therefore, it follows that H-S is a cost of service! Of course, these are not the only aftershocks, so are alcohol/substance abuse, some accidents, incarceration, divorce, and many more self-directed and/or other-directed ones.

Homicide(s)-Suicides (H-S) are predictable after war. We know that (but it is masked. Stigma? Walls/Barriers?). I would encourage a read of my 2013 book, Suicide among the Armed Forces: Understanding the Cost of Service, available through my publisher, Routledge. As I cannot rewrite everything here from that book (blogs are supposed to be short and concise), I here copy a few quotes from Chapter 9, “The many faces of violence: Homicide, accidental deaths, self-harm, and incarceration”:

“War-related death is violence. Suicide is violence. Homicide is violence. Suicide is self-directed violence. Homicide and war-related death are other-directed violence. They are lethal violence. Suicide, homicide, war-related death and other violence have probably always been part of the military experience. …“What is homicide?” is an age old question. … we can then define intentional homicide as: Intentional homicide is a conscious act of other-induced annihilation, best understood as a multi-dimensional event in a needful individual who defines an issue for which the homicide is perceived as the best solution.”

That is quite similar to a definition of suicide, except that in suicide the best solution is self-directed violence. In H-S, it is both; it is a way to fix a situation. It is a final solution. Lionel was known to have stated about his unbearable pain, “I will fix it”. Let me return to my book:

“Suicide is a multi-determined event. Homicide is a multi-determined event. Thus, it follows that homicide followed by suicide is also not determined by one factor. … We know almost nothing about homicide in the military. … Hill, Johnson, and Barton (2006) offer an overview on military homicide and suicide in harm’s way. They undertook a chart review of 425 deployed soldiers seen for mental health reasons. They found that 127 (nearly 30%) had been suicidal and 67 (nearly 16%) had been homicidal within the past month. That is huge!”

We know nothing on military H-S, well almost nothing. We now sadly know the Homicides-Suicide of Aaliyah, Shanna, Brenda, and Lionel Desmond on January 4, 2017 in a small rural community in Nova Scotia.

Allow me a digression on H-S that I have learned so far. I wrote another book, Suicide and Homicide-Suicide among Police, available also through Routledge. Like among soldiers/veterans, suicide is at high levels in police too. However, maybe a better credential of my authority on the topic of Homicide-Suicide; I was the lead investigator for the London Police Service (LPS) in the H-S of Superintendent Dave Lucio and Inspector Kelly Johnson (Leenaars, Collins, & Sinclair, 2008). Dave died by homicide. Kelly died after by suicide. Along with a forensic team, I was asked to undertake a DSI. I did what is called a psychological autopsy (PA). On the PA, my mentor Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a founder of the PA investigation, stated: “It (the PA) legitimately conducts interviews (with a variety of people who knew the decedent) and examines personal documents (suicide notes, diaries, and letters) and other materials (including autopsy and police reports) that are relevant to the psychological assessment of the dead individual’s role in the death” (Shneidman, 1977 [italics mine]). In the Kelly Johnson case, we answered, “Why did the H-S happen?”, and “What can we do to prevent a similar occurrence?” I uncovered the barren bones of this tragic case; yet, although that was interesting, even more sadly, we learned that H-S among police was at epidemic levels. Not unlike among armed forces, police forces kept it secret. In an extremely rare study, as help from police forces has not been provided, the well-known expert on police suicide, John Violanti (2007) concluded, from public data, such as newspaper reports, that H-S among police is “high’, well above statistical expected levels. Therefore, it is, based on WHO criteria, at epidemic level. This, I believe, is true among the armed forces!

If one wants to understand unnecessary death and how to prevent it better, I would encourage a good read of my new 2017 book with Routledge, The Psychological Autopsy: A Roadmap for Uncovering the Barren Bones of the Suicide’s Mind. You will see that DSI is not mysterious. I think the book, and a PA of the Desmond case specifically, will help not only to understand H-S better, but also to be better accountable (See Blog #19). Like Suicide, Homicide-Suicide can be prevented!

The Globe and Mail did a revealing public report on PTSD, and suicide among soldiers and veterans (D’Aliesio, Perreaux, and Maki, November 4, 2016 [and the week that followed]). They uncovered the pain and deaths of 70 soldiers and vets. They interviewed the families, friends, fellow heroes, Lieutenant-Colonel Stephane Grenier, and many others. They also interviewed me; among other concerns, I raised the issue of survivors’ pain and aftershocks. I was quoted: “You have to include the family and the children because there is secondary trauma” … “It is like walking on egg shells.” The eggshells after the H-S in Nova Scotia will be even sharper!

There are, of course, survivors. Aaliyah, Shanna, and Brenda (and Lionel too) are not the only victims. A friend, Dennis MacKenzie, tells his story of survival (CBC News, Jan., 6, 2017). Indeed, we know that the aftershocks in collective communities, like the military and police, are even greater. This is normal, not crazy. However, we will survive! Don’t give up the fight!

One final point: Like S, H-S can be prevented; yet, we need to do more than we do now. Furthermore, the care must be culturally competent, or also called culturally safe, care! There will be walls or barriers, often our own. There will be stigma! Sadly, the Desmond family and friends may be isolated. What I learned after the Dave Lucio-Kelly Johnson case, the Johnson survivors were alienated, maybe even shamed. Not-understandably, some of the greatest barriers came from some survivors of suicide. ‘Kelly was not one of us’, they believed and shared. She is, so is Lionel. Homicide-Suicide is Suicide; based on actual research, we know that it is more like Suicide than Homicide. VAC needs to do more; the last time that I spoke to Mike Blais, too little for soldiers and vets was being done to date. There were Trudeau promises to soldiers and veterans on suicide prevention, like to First Nations/Métis, Inuit people, but to date little action. What will we do?

I am sure that this Blog will not make people at the VAC happy. Many decades ago, when we started the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP), we asked the federal government during an epidemic of suicide among youth, “How many of our young people are you going to let die?” It appeared that citizens are not allowed to ask such questions. The response was that I and some subsequent presidents of CASP, such as Bob Sims, were blacklisted in Ottawa; they even blacklisted CASP itself. The late 1980’s to 2010 were dark years for suicide prevention in Canada. This was stigma! Of course, the whole of mental health was in the dark ages; funding for mental health was at a low, with only Iceland contributing less per capita on the world developed stage. Stigma!! Barriers!! The days of blacklisting, I hope and believe, are gone. If not, that is sanctuary trauma (See Blog #10). The Desmond’s tragedy can, in fact, be an opportunity to call all of us in Canada together to help our heroes. They served; they now need our help. I think that we can. I know that we can!


Bissett, K., & MacDonald, M. (2017, Jan. 7). ‘I will fix it’, struggling ex-soldier wrote. National Post in Windsor Star, pp. NP1 and NP4.

CBC News. (2017, Jan. 6). Veteran struggling with friend’s role in apparent murder-suicide. CBC News.

D’Aliesio, R., Perreaux, L., & Maki, A. (2016, Nov. 4). We remember. The Globe & Mail, pp. 1 & 11.

Leenaars, A. (2010). Suicide and Homicide- Suicide among Police. New York: Routledge.

Leenaars, A. (2013). Suicide among the Armed Forces. New York: Routledge.

Leenaars, A. (2017). The Psychological Autopsy: A Roadmap for Uncovering the Barren Bones of the Suicide’s Mind. New York: Routledge.

Leenaars, A., Collins, P., & Sinclair, D. (May 28, 2008). Report to the London Police Service and London Community on the Deaths of David Lucio and Kelly Johnson. Retrieved November, 22, 2008 from

MacDonald, M. (2017, Jan 5). PTSD suspected after Afgan veteran, wife, daughter, and mother found dead. National Post in Windsor Star, pp. NP1-2.

Shneidman, E. (1977). The psychological autopsy. In L. Gottschalk, F. McGuire, E. Dinovo, H. Birch, J. Heiser (Eds.), Guide to the investigation and reporting of drug-abuse deaths (pp. 42-56). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Violant, J. (2007). Homicide-suicide in police families: Aggression full circle. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 9, 97-104.