Dying at the Hands of Postpartum Depression: Infanticide In the Media

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Two media stories have been sitting in my inbox for several days, both about the killing of young children by their mothers. I let them sit there because I always have a hard time finding the words to talk about such things. At the same time, there is plenty of speculation in the media about why the mothers in these two stories harmed their children, and whether it had anything to do with postpartum depression.

Maybe. Maybe not.

As outlined in this pretty balanced story on MSNBC.com, there are several situations in which mothers kill their children:

  • ignored pregnancy
  • abuse-related
  • neglect-related
  • assisted or coerced filicide (such as when a partner forces the killing); and
  • purposeful filicide with the mother acting alone

The cases I've seen involving postpartum psychosis or severe postpartum depression with psychotic features have generally fallen into that last category. The MSNBC story doesn't say which percentage of all murders of children fall under purposeful filicide, nor does it say what percentage of all purposeful filicides involve infanticide, which is the murder of a baby younger than 1 year of age, so it's hard for us to know how often, among all murders of children, a murder is committed because the mom has a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder. Once is often enough, of course, but still it would be nice to have hard data to show moms with postpartum depression so they know that their fellow sufferers aren't murdering their children all over the place. (They AREN'T, by the way.)

It seems fairly certain that one of the mothers involved in the news last week, Janet Thies-Kogh, had a perinatal mood disorder of some sort. Thies-Kogh has been charged with suffocating her 8-month-old, andThe Chicago Tribune reports that she is being treated now, according to her lawyer, for postpartum psychosis. As is always the case, I wonder what the advance signs were and whether anyone was aware that she needed serious help.

It will be more difficult to find out what happened in the case of LaShanda Armstrong, because she drove her van into a river, killing herself and four of her children. She cannot be tested by psychiatrists. Those who know her say she was depressed after finding out the father of three of her children was having an affair, according to the New York Daily News, so it may be that she didn't have postpartum depression per se.

No matter what, such tragedies often bring discussions of postpartum depression to the media forefront. I suppose I could be grateful that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are being discussed at all. I just wish the media was equally as likely to discuss PPD in other circumstances — positive circumstances — as it is in the cases of infanticide. What about the stories of recovery? What about the stories of moms helping moms? What about the fact that the vast majority of women with postpartum depression never harm even a hair on any child's head for any reason?

Maybe then we'd reduce stigma and more women would get the help they need. Maybe then more women would recognize when they are suffering, and more doctors would be looking out for them, and more family members would be there for support, and women who sought help would get it from people who know what they are doing.

Maybe then we could eliminate stories of tragedy altogether.

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  1. I am a Mom.
    I suffered from postpartum psychosis.
    I am living a full and happy life in recovery. My brain chemistry is changed, and I am different. But I was never violent, and I am 90% the person I was before.
    I know one person personally who is a postpartum psychosis survivor. She is 5 years out from her last break, (she had two) and was never violent. She holds a full time job, has never talked with anyone about it aside from myself, and nobody seems to notice.
    We both have a bipolar diagnosis as a direct result of our breaks with no serious mental health histories prior.
    I know at least 5 more who have read my story and contacted me through my blog. We are out there. Sane. Something happened postpartum that caused our mental health to go into psychosis. Most of us have another diagnosis and are continuing treatment.
    100 a year is not enough for everyone in America to know someone affected by this. The vast majority of people that are mentally ill are coping through therapy, medication and relaxation techniques. Another help we find is being assertive and addressing problems respectfully.
    If we could listen and not project or judge, I believe we could eliminate a great deal of the stigma and tragic isolation someone feels with a mental health diagnosis. If I could send a message, it would be:
    You're not alone!

  2. How much sooner would I have sought help, I wonder, if I hadn't thought that I would be perceived as an abusive mother. They'd take away my baby, I was sure of it, because that's what happens on TV shows and the 10:00 news.
    So much good and healing could come from heeding your suggestions here and from changing the stigma. So. Much. Good.

  3. I just wish that they'd cry for help. Or that people would listen.
    I don't know what the answer is.
    I do know, however, that I was dangerous to my son & myself for months. & so I was not allowed to be alone with him or alone at all. It took a lot of cooperation from my family, a lot of planning, & I wonder sometimes if stories like this are a result not of the mother, but of a lack of involvement & participation from her support group.
    How easy it would have been for my husband to just "run to the store" without having to load me & the baby in the car. How easy it would have been for my mother to tell me to deal for another 30 minutes rather than dropping everything to come watch me. But who knows what tragedy would have happened if they had taken the easy road?
    I'm talking out of my ass here. I don't know the answer.

  4. I'm so glad that the people in your life understood the significance of this illness. So many don't. They don't take psychosis seriously enough.

  5. "…I wonder sometimes if stories like this are a result not of the mother, but of a lack of involvement and participation from her support group."
    Can't agree more with Blair!
    That's why sometimes I think these type of stories in the media are necessary. Though scary, maybe it'll finally get people to clue in that postpartum mood disorders are real and can get really bad for some and that support people and health professionals should not just take the easy or lazy road.

  6. Hi Katherine,
    Thank you for addressing this very important issue; I wasn't aware of the incident in Chicago, but I immediately wondered if Ms. Armstrong was suffering from PPD when I saw her story on the Today show last week. The upsetting thing is that she seemingly reached out to someone/anyone via a Facebook post, but not in a way that anyone would be able to actually help her. Although I was never in the position to harm my child, I WAS in the position to harm myself — and I'm glad that I reached out to a family member and was able to receive the help that I needed very badly at the time. I hope through your blog and through additional (positive) stories in the media, that women can be better-informed of perinatal mood disorders that may affect them — even if they have no prior history of emotional issues. Thanks…

  7. Hi Katherine,
    I agree that we should hear more about positive stories of moms that overcame postpartum depression but unfortunately the "shock and awe" stories is what gets everyone's attention. Nevertheless these stories still bring the problems of diagnosing and treating post partum depression to the forefront and so maybe we can use this to advocate that more doctors and nurses and family members understand the signs and symptoms of PPD and work harder on getting help to the mother sooner.
    Keep doing what you are doing and thank you.

  8. As a Nurse, mother and friend of someone who has gone through postpartum depression, I can attest that it was a difficult time in her life and her family's life. However, with the proper counceling, friendship and maybe a little magic, she is now a very happy mother, wife and friend. We have to fight through our challenges and believe in ourselves.