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Murder-Suicide in Suburbia: 'Wake-Up Call' for Indian Americans

New America Media, News Report, Viji Sundaram Posted: Apr 01, 2009

The horrific murder-suicide of six family members in the upscale community of Rivermark in Santa Clara, Calif., last Sunday, has shocked neighbors and served as a wake-up call for the Indian American community in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Theres lot of speculation surrounding these killings, but one thing thats clear is that we are just as susceptible and prone to such violence as any other community, observed Mukta Sharangpani, president of the South Bay-based support group for South Asian women, Maitri. Its time we take mental health seriously. That guy was obviously troubled.

At press time, Santa Clara police had not released any information as to the possible motive of the 42-year-old alleged killer, Devan Kalathat, aka, Raghavan Devarajan, who turned the gun on himself after allegedly killing his two young children -- a boy aged 11 and a 4-year-old girl -- his brother-in-law and his wife who were visiting from India, and their 11-month-old daughter. Kalathats wife, who was shot several times, was in critical condition late Tuesday.

Two of the Kalathats children attended the private Challenger School in Sunnyvale.

At an afternoon press conference Tuesday, police would only say that the motive for the rampage did not appear to be financial stress, but seems to center on family dynamics.

In the shooting last October that also involved an Indian-American family in another upscale neighborhood of Northern California, 45-year-old Karthik Rajaram killed himself after he allegedly shot and killed his wife, their three sons and his mother-in-law when he found himself unemployed and his savings wiped out in the economic collapse. A business associate had described him as mentally unstable.

So why had neither man sought counseling, instead of deciding to wipe out his entire family?

Theres such a taboo around seeking help for mental health problems, asserted Dr. Nitu Hans, a clinical psychologist at the Fremont-based chapter of the Hume Center, a facility that provides culturally sensitive behavioral health services to underserved populations. And there is no extended support for people here as there is back home (in India).

According to Santa Clara police, Kalathat had bought two .45-caliber semi-automatic pistols within the last month, one of them as recently as last week, which seems to suggest that the crime may have been planned. Few Indian Americans are likely to keep guns in the home, Hans observed.

Juliet Leftwich, legal director of the San Francisco-based non-profit, Legal Community Against Violence, said that the March 29 killing rampage once again belies the myth that guns in the home make it safer for the family, and supports the large body of research that shows that a gun in the home is more likely to be used against a family member than an intruder.

Hans said she sees a fair amount of South Asian clients, mostly men, in her private practice through the Employment Assistance Programs many companies offer their employees whose performance levels start to drop. Work is such an important issue for South Asian men, as it is for men in other communities, she said.

She said the Hume Center has long been mindful of the need to educate the South Asian community on the importance of seeking help at the first signs of mental stress. Even before the recent killings, it had started efforts to collaborate with the India Community Center in Milpitas to offer counseling services.

Offering such services at a social and cultural center would take away the taboo associated with seeking help from such clinics as the Hume Center, Hans said.

Dr. Anmol Mahal, a board member at the India Community Center, said it would be easy to offer privacy and confidentiality to those who might want to access counseling services. This is because ICCs volunteer-run health clinic has a side entrance that is far removed from the two main entrances. Once it starts, I am sure it be well-utilized, Mahal said.

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