How could a mother supposedly kill her children? Experts say mental health can interfere with thinking.

Paradoxically, experts say, the culprit of such deaths is often a loving mother in the throes of mental illness, motivated by love and attachment to her children.

Cheryl L. Meyer, a psychology professor at Wright State University who studies mothers who kill their children, recalls interviewing one such woman who had also attempted suicide. The mother told her that it made sense to kill her children because they were an extension of herself. as if they were a limb.

“She couldn’t die without taking hold of her arm. She couldn’t die without taking the kids with her,” Meyer said Wednesday.

As the mother of a 7-month-old baby, Clancy was still in the one-year postpartum period and she had revealed on social media that she had suffered from postpartum depression in the past.

In rare cases – about 1 or 2 in every 1,000 postpartum women – this depression can develop into psychosis, in which a woman’s brain is “hijacked by a very, very serious illness that distorts reality” and triggers actions she takes. would never undertake if they were healthy. said Dr. Nancy Byatt, a professor of psychiatry, obstetrics and gynecology and population and quantitative health sciences at UMass Chan Medical School.

Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman, a professor of forensic psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University who has researched parents who kill their children, said the motives fall into five categories: a young person with an unwanted pregnancy kills a newborn; years of abuse or neglect lead to the death of a child; a partner seeks revenge, often in the case of a broken relationship; and two types of mental illness – “altruistic” and “acute psychotic.”

The first category is irrelevant to the Duxbury deaths and there is no evidence for the second or third so far. And it is not known whether Clancy had any psychiatric problems.

But the prospect of mental illness underlying the Duxbury murders raises troubling questions.

In some cases, Hatters Friedman said, the parent’s motive is altruistic — “love-killing,” strange as that may sound. A parent may have delusions that a fate worse than death awaits the child, such as kidnapping and murder, and believes it is preferable to gently kill the child. Parents planning suicide may not want to leave their child in a world they consider too horrible to live in.

In the acutely psychotic cases, a parent may think that God is commanding them to kill their child or that their child is evil, she said.

People are often baffled by such murders because the mothers were often known for being perfect and loving, said Meyer, who wrote two books on the subject. “These mothers are often described as quintessential mothers. They are the definition of a good mother,” she said. “And that’s why it’s really shocking when you hear about them doing these things.”

Such women are not secretly evil. Instead, some kind of mental illness takes hold of them. When their identities are so intertwined with their children’s, they take steps that in their twisted thinking seem best for their children.

“Why would a woman who loves her children kill them?” Meijer said. “She killed them because she loved them. That is difficult to understand.”

The determining factor for women killing their children was a lack of social support, Meyer said. She recalled meeting a woman who confessed that during a major life crisis she had prepared to kill her children and herself by poisoning their ice cream. Just before she served it, her pastor called to ask how she was. By the time the conversation ended, the ice had melted and the murder plans were gone.

Cases like the Duxbury murders are rare but unforgettable. Everyone remembers Susan Smith, who floated her two young children into a lake in 1994, and Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Yates was a devoted mother who homeschooled her children, but killed her children as she suffered. of postpartum psychosis.

In Canada and the United Kingdom, a woman cannot be convicted of first-degree murder if she kills her child during the postpartum period, Meyer said.

In the United States, mothers often receive harsh punishments for killing their children. “It’s even more horrifying in our minds for a mother to do this,” she said.

Byatt, of UMass, finds it “disturbing” that the Duxbury mother was charged with murder. If she had postpartum psychosis, she couldn’t control what she did, Byatt said.

Postpartum depression, which is caused by hormonal changes after pregnancy, is more common than postpartum psychosis, but both can be prevented with treatment if doctors watch for the warning signs during pregnancy and after birth, said Dr. Judith E. Robinson, a Tufts Medical Center psychiatrist.

People who already suffer from a mental illness such as bipolar disorder, or who have had postpartum depression in the past, are at higher risk.

“It’s a very serious condition,” Robinson said. “It’s more than just being sad or crying every now and then.”

Symptoms of depression include persistent sadness, barely getting out of bed, crying all the time, and difficulty eating, sleeping, and concentrating. Psychosis includes delusional or disordered thinking and hallucinations.

“It’s a life crisis to have a baby less than a year old and have a few other kids,” Robinson said. “You run a really high risk of burnout. And if you have your own mental illness and you don’t have help – your kids can be difficult, just normally difficult. . . . It can drive you to the point where you become psychotic.”

If you or someone you know has had suicidal thoughts, call 988 or visit 988lifeline.org to chat online.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.

How could a mother supposedly kill her children? Experts say mental health can interfere with thinking.

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