*trigger alert* For tragedy. If you need support, call us at 800-944-4773. In an emergency, call 800-973-TALK.
As details emerge of the tragedy that took place on Friday, July 1, Postpartum Support International encourages law enforcement, policy-makers, mental health clinicians, and postpartum families to follow these four steps:
1. Ask that the mother be taken to a hospital rather than a jail.
2. Secure legal defense for the mother.
3. Video-tape the mother as soon as possible if she is exhibiting signs of psychotic behavior.
4. Secure a mental health professional with specialized training in perinatal mental health
When a woman inflicts harm on her child, including infanticide, it is very rare, and in most cases she suffers from perinatal psychosis, which is too often unrecognized, ignored, or inadequately treated. PSI advocates for a complete mental health assessment when alleged crimes are committed during pregnancy or postpartum. While many countries provide compassionate investigation and legislation, in the United States women often face lengthy and sometimes lifelong incarceration. It is the intent of PSI to promote positive change and advocate for improved knowledge among attorneys, judges, law enforcement, health care providers, and the public about perinatal mood disorders including psychosis, and to help change outdated legislation where possible. “Women, families and health care providers need to know that pregnancy and postpartum mental health disorders are common, real, and treatable. We can prevent escalation and crisis with access to qualified treatment and support,” explains Wendy N. Davis, PhD, PSI Executive Director.
Postpartum psychosis occurs in 1-2 mothers out of 1000 births, although occasionally psychosis can begin during pregnancy. Of the women who suffer from perinatal psychosis only 4% ever harm their child. The symptoms most often begin within the first 2 weeks postpartum, and can include delusions, hallucinations, delirium, and paranoia. At times the woman loses complete touch with reality. Psychosis is a medical emergency that requires immediate and thorough assessment, intervention, and treatment. Although the symptoms of psychosis are severe and present great risk, perinatal psychosis is treatable and women are capable of full recovery. Perinatal psychosis is a temporary illness that needs to be looked at differently than chronic psychiatric disorders. This difference must be understood as women are assessed, defended, and evaluated for alleged crimes committed during a temporary delusional state. Legal insanity definitions can be misleading because the woman may at moments be able to differentiate right from wrong, yet in the delusional state be influenced by extreme compelling thoughts, hallucinations, or commands which instruct her to harm her baby.
PSI works to increase public and professional understanding that perinatal psychosis, while it presents a serious and immediate potential for harm, is treatable and temporary. You can access more resources regarding postpartum psychosis on the PSI website.