In my workshop, Understanding and Managing Mental Illness in the Workplace, one of the topics is addressing the stigma and the many myths about mental illness.  One of the many myths is that people with mental illness are violent and therefore dangerous.  The truth is that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence…this is a well-researched fact.  One of the delegates in a recent workshop challenged this by asking about the case of Tania Clarence, a mother who suffocated her 3 disabled children in 2014.  He was suggesting that this was an example of a person with mental illness being violent.  Let me explain.

Tania Clarence had four children, the younger three of which were severely disabled with spinal muscular atrophy.  Her older child was unafflicted by this condition.  When her husband and their older child were in South Africa visiting relatives, she smothered the 3 younger children in their beds with teddy bears all around them, and then reportedly tried to end her own life by means of an overdose of painkillers.  She was detained following the incident and openly admitted to killing the 3 children.  The result of the subsequent trial, during which her husband continued to support her, was that she was found guilty of manslaughter, not murder.  She was sentenced to a hospital order, not jail.

There are three issues that I would like to talk about here:

  1. Was Tania Clarence suffering from a mental illness?,
  2. Was her behaviour a demonstration of violence?, and
  3. Should she be considered a dangerous person?

Information that is available on the case indicates that she had been suffering from depression since approximately 2010, around the time of the birth of her second daughter and twin boys.  She was described as being overwhelmed from having to care for three severely disabled children.  It is said that despite the involvement of various social services and attempted interventions, she resisted treatment for major depressive disorder.  At the conclusion of her trial, her Solicitor said that “ultimately her story of dedication and love became a story of despair and utter hopelessness”.  I think it’s fair to say that she suffered from a mental illness in the form of major depressive disorder resulting primarily from trauma and environmental circumstances.  She was not psychotic and there is no evidence to suggest that she has a personality disorder of the antisocial (psychopathic) type.

Based on how she went about the act of killing her 3 children, this was not what would normally be considered to be violent.  It’s as if she did it as gently, almost lovingly, as she could.  This could be likened to a mercy killing.  I am not saying that it was right, just that it was not violent.  She described how hard it was for her to do in a letter to her husband, and I feel confident she was sobbing uncontrollably throughout the acts.

And finally, is she a dangerous person?  My opinion is that what Tania Clarence did was completely associated with the extremely distressing situation that she found herself in, and that this cannot be generalized to her being considered a dangerous person.  I think that the only person in danger is Tania Clarence, as to live with the knowledge of having ended 3 of your 4 children’s lives regardless of the rationale must be very, very difficult.  I am not sure how a person moves on with their life after such an experience no matter how much love and support they have available to them.

Tania Clarence is an example of a person with a mental illness in the form of depression who performed actions out of sheer despair.  Her profound sadness, loss of hope, and impaired executive functioning led her to the decision to end the children’s lives.  She seems to have been intent on ending her own life as well indicating that her will to live had failed – depression does not get any more severe than this.  She is not an example of a person with a mental illness who is violent and dangerous.

So to conclude, people with mental illness are not usually violent and dangerous.  There are of course exceptions to this rule, hence the word “usually”.  People with antisocial personality disorder can be violent and dangerous, and serial killers fall into this category of mental illness.  Sometimes people who are psychotic as a result of schizophrenia, mania or drug-induced illness, can be violent, but this is not the norm.  It has been reported that even psychotic people who hear voices telling them to be violent towards people or inanimate objects are able to resist such instructions.

The myth that people with mental illness are violent and dangerous is just one of many myths that prevail and perpetuate the stigma.  People who really know and understand the facts, do not demonstrate the same prejudice towards and ostracization of people with mental illness as is demonstrated by those that are ignorant.


Take care everyone.

Your Partner in Mental Health Matters @ Work,


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