By Michelle Lang And Joel Kom, with files from Stephane Massinon, Calgary HeraldMay 27, 2009
CALGARY – One year after Joshua Lall committed the worst multiple murder-suicide in Calgary’s history, his mother-in-law says people must learn to recognize the symptoms of mental illness and seek help for their problems.
Sheila Fisher, who lost her daughter Alison and two grandchildren in the slayings, said her son-in-law was mentally ill when he killed his wife, two of the couple’s daughters and a female tenant before taking his own life 12 months ago today.
Police sources have said Lall, a 34-year-old aspiring architect who was widely described as a loving family man, suffered hallucinations in the days before the slayings.
“He really was a lovely individual, but he was ill,” said Fisher, in a telephone interview from her home in Ontario.
“I’m sure there’s other people in (Joshua’s) position in various places. . . . You can get help. Deal with the stigma. Go and get help.”
On the evening of May 27, 2008, Lall killed his wife Alison, 35, and their two daughters, Kristen, 51/2,and Rochelle, 31/2, in their Dalhart Hill N. W. home, but left their one-year-old daughter, Anna, unharmed.
He also killed Amber Bowerman, 30,who was renting a basement suite in the house.
An intern at a local architectural firm and a one-time high school valedictorian, Lall has been widely described as a young father who doted on his wife and young daughters.
But in the days leading up to the slayings, there were signs he was struggling with mental health problems. About two weeks before the multiple murder-suicide, it appears Lall was suffering delusions, hallucinations and was having trouble sleeping.
Police officers familiar with the case have said he heard voices in his head and believed he was possessed by the devil.
Experts say it is possible for people in their 30s who have no history of mental illness to suffer psychotic episodes, brought on by anything from major depression to other medical problems.
Mental health organizations like the Calgary Counselling Centre agree with Fisher’s statement, saying Lall’s situation illustrates the importance of seeking professional assistance in the face of psychiatric problems.
“It was just such a terrible tragedy and it was likely preventable, had the family sought service,” said Robbie Babins-Wagner, chief executive of the Calgary Counselling Centre.
“We don’t know if that happened or not,” she added.
Indeed, there are unanswered questions about what kind of help, if any, Lall received.
In an e-mail to a family babysitter, written hours before the slayings, his wife wrote he had sought assistance “from a number of people,” and was on the mend after being stressed and unable to sleep for a prolonged period.
It is not known if Lall went to a physician.
But Jennifer Klein, who was maid of honour at the Lalls’wedding, said as far as anyone has been able to tell, Joshua never got professional help for what was troubling him.
Part of the reason, she believes, is that the couple or Joshua alone wanted to hide what they were dealing with.
“It’s such a shame that there’s a stigma around mental illness and that they did not go and get help,” said Klein, who saw the couple three weeks before the slayings.
“If it was arthritis, if it was some physical illness, you instantly go to the doctor. And with this, they didn’t seek help, and so obviously they had to hide something. It’s a societal view.”
Bowerman’s family, basing their comments on what they have been told by police, said Lall had not sought professional psychiatric help, but instead spoke to family, friends and someone from his church.
They said he had never been diagnosed with a mental illness.
“It would be a disservice not to talk about mental illness, the trigger points, symptoms, and what to do to prevent crimes like this from happening in the future. There are resources out there,” said her husband, Chris Bowerman.
Asked if mental illness awareness has improved in the past year, Bowerman is direct.
“No. There’s been very little talk about it. I think it’s a disservice to the city of Calgary and its citizens,” said Bowerman.
“If someone perhaps had done something different and maybe listened to his cries for help, it could have come out totally different and we wouldn’t be doing this today,” said Susan Webb, her mother.
The Calgary-based Mental Health Commission of Canada confirms the stigma associated with mental illness is one of the biggest reasons those suffering from problems don’t seek help.
Indeed, commission officials worry the high-profile Lall killings will reinforce inaccurate stereotypes that mentally ill people are violent.
“People with mental illness are not more likely to harm others,” said Micheal Pietrus, director of the commission’s anti-stigma imitative. “But the spotlight focused on an incident like this continues to entrench uneducated views and prejudices that people have toward mental illness.”
On the other hand, some experts said the Lall case shows anyone can suffer from psychiatric problems.
Patrick Baillie, a Calgary forensic psychologist, said the situation should make people pause and consider what is going on in their own lives.
“It’s an opportunity for people to realize that healthy, well-adjusted families can still face a period of stress,” said Baillie. “Accessing appropriate mental health resources would be the right response.”
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