When mothers are driven to kill

By Hajara Kutty

Does postpartum depression cause mothers to kill? It’s a question some may ask following the triple stabbings last week by a Winnipeg mother said to have been suffering from postpartum depression.

Fortunately, the answer is short and simple: No, it doesn’t.

The notion that women with postpartum depression are at risk of killing their children is one women who have suffered from the affliction will tell you they cannot relate to. It is also one many feel unjustifiably vilifies the condition.

Postpartum depression, a condition that afflicts up to 20 per cent of new moms (and can even strike those who have adopted, miscarried or aborted) is but one disorder on a spectrum of illnesses called postpartum mood disorders.

It is the most common of the lot, which includes postpartum anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and postpartum psychosis. Symptoms of the condition include: feeling overwhelmed; numbness; frequent crying; lack of interest or pleasure; and/or appetite and sleep disturbance.

So how is it that whenever a mother kills her children the words postpartum depression always seem to crop up?

The issue here is a misunderstanding of the medical facts. The woman in question may very well have been suffering from postpartum depression, but what is left out is whether she was also experiencing psychotic features. This is fundamental to the discussion because postpartum depression with psychotic features is actually a form of the life-threatening emergency condition known as postpartum psychosis.

It is women with this illness who are a very real threat to not only themselves, but others around them, including their children.

This is because women with postpartum psychosis experience, in addition to the symptoms listed above, severe paranoia, delusions (beliefs not rooted in reality, i.e., that they are Jesus, Satan or are living among aliens) and hallucinations (seeing, hearing or feeling things not actually there). In short, these women are not in touch with reality but are functioning in a reality of their own.

Tragically, afflicted women sometimes feel compelled either by their delusions or hallucinations to do things they would otherwise never do, believing they have no choice in the matter.

This is why women who have committed some of the most horrific crimes tend not to hide what they have done, but are often the ones who report the matter themselves to police and family.

What is even more unfortunate is the illness, when properly diagnosed, is easily treatable.

Therefore, the real question is: Why are women and their families/supports not educated about the symptoms of postpartum psychosis, such that they can be alert and get themselves or their loved ones help before tragedy strikes?

The rationale used by some that postpartum psychosis is a rare occurrence that doesn’t warrant mainstream awareness is simply an excuse. Some in the health field have told me they fear discussing its frequency will simply scare new mothers. This is unfortunate, given the fact postpartum psychosis is not all that rare — studies around the world put its incidence at about 1 in 500 births, higher than the incidence of a mother giving birth to a child with Down syndrome, a condition most everyone knows about.

To this overall lack of education on the reality of postpartum psychosis, add in that immigrant women have a more difficult time accessing services for a variety of reasons, including: language barriers and cultural beliefs about mental illness. Easy to see how a combination like this may end up in tragedy.

Those south of the border have taken the right kind of steps by adopting the Melanie Blocker-Stokes Mothers Act, which mandates increased education about and research into postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis.

True, it took the death of Melanie Blocker-Stokes and the loss of numerous other lives before the bill became law. Is that what we in Canada are really waiting for? A few more Canadian children to be hurt or killed by their own mothers? I for one hope not.

*Hajara Kutty, the co-ordinator of Postpartum Support International in the Greater Toronto Area, gives assistance to women (and their families) who seek help with postpartum disorders.

 This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press