Manhattan attorney Cynthia Wachenheim leapt to her death from eight stories up Wednesday while carrying her 10-month-old child. In a suicide note, Wachenheim explained that she believed her son was doomed to a serious medical condition thanks to a few falls he had suffered (though her pediatrician, friends and family did not believe the child was seriously harmed).
In the note, Wachenheim described her forthcoming act as “evil” and blamed herself for allowing her son to be injured.
“Her belief that she failed to prevent it caused her to ‘crumble,’” according to the New York Times, citing a law enforcement official that had red Wachenheim’s suicide note. “She wrote that she was depressed and could no longer socialize. She was sure that people would see her behavior as postpartum depression or psychosis.”
After she gives birth, a new mother’s happy occasion is commonly marked by feelings of anxiety, irritation and restlessness. These “baby blues,” thought to stem from changes in hormone levels, usually go away after a few weeks. But in about 10 to 15 percent of new mothers, the baby blues stick around and become more serious, developing into the characteristic signs of clinical depression: withdrawal, a lack of interest in usual activities and feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
Postpartum depression crops up in women across the board; most studies conclude that neither a mother’s race nor her ethnicity nor her education level makes her more or less predisposed to it. This syndrome does not usually lead to homicide or suicide.
Many women, especially single or low-income mothers, are too ashamed or fearful to seek help for postpartum depression.
Left untreated, postpartum depression can worsen. The more serious form of post-birth illness, postpartum psychosis, is rarer, occurring in between .1 and .2 percent of women who’ve just given birth.
One of the more egregious recent cases of postpartum psychosis is Andrea Yates, a former nurse who methodically drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. After she murdered the children, Andrea revealed she had been considering killing them for two years.
In jailhouse statements echoing Wachenheim’s suicide note, Yates said that “she had not been a good mother to them. ... They were not developing correctly.”
“Odd family dynamics, fundamentalist religious beliefs, clinical care that was fragmented at best, and the quirks and inadequacies of the American medical-insurance system all had some role in the Yates' family tragedy,” science writer Faith McLellan wrote in the Lancet. “The case also highlighted the lack of recognition of the potentially deadly consequences of postnatal disorders and the limitations of the justice system in dealing with individuals who are mentally ill.”
There is no magic bullet for postpartum depression, but experts agree that the best thing for new mothers to do is try and get as much rest as she can and open up to her spouse or family, if possible. Some studies show that counseling augmented by cognitive-behavioral therapy, a technique that focuses on identifying and correcting wayward thought patterns, shows promise.
“A woman needs to know that it is OK to accept help,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness said. “A new mother (first time or again) should know that having depression does not make her a bad mother or a failure.”