How can a mother allegedly kill her children? Experts say mental health can distort thinking.

Paradoxically, say experts, the perpetrator in 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 professor of psychology at Wright State University who studies mothers who kill their children, recalled interviewing a woman who had also tried to kill herself. The mother told him that it seemed logical to kill her children because they were an extension of herself, as if they were one part.

She could not die without taking his hand. She could not have died without taking the children,” Mayer said on Wednesday.

As a mother of 7 months, Clancy was still in the postpartum period, and she 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 progress to psychosis, in which a woman’s brain is “hijacked by a really serious illness that distorts reality” and those actions Gives signs which they would never do when healthy. Professor of Psychiatry, Obstetrics and Gynecology and Population and Quantitative Health Sciences at UMass Chan Medical School, Dr. Nancy Byatt said.

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

The first category is not relevant to the Duxbury deaths, and there is no evidence so far for the second or third. And it is unknown whether Clancy had mental problems.

But the possibility that a mental health condition underlies the Duxbury murders raises troubling questions.

In some cases, Hatters Friedman said, the parents’ motive is altruistic—”killing out of love,” however strange it may sound. A parent may have a delusion that the child faces a fate worse than death, such as being kidnapped and murdered, and believes that it is better to kill them slowly . Parents who are planning suicide may not want to leave their child in a world they consider too terrible to live in.

In acute psychotic cases, parents may think that God is commanding them to kill their child or that their child is evil, she said.

Meyer, who has written two books on the subject, said people are often shocked by such killings because mothers are often portrayed as perfect and loving. “These mothers are often described as quintessential mothers. They are the definition of a good mother,” she said. “And so it’s really shocking when you hear that they do.”

Such women are not secretly evil. Rather, some kind of mental illness takes hold of them. When their identity is so entangled with that of their children, they take whatever steps they think is best for their children in their warped thinking.

“Why would a woman who loves her children kill them?” Mayer said. “She killed them because she loved them. It’s hard to understand.”

Meyer said the defining factor for women who killed their children was a lack of social support. He recalled meeting a woman who confessed that, during a major life crisis, she had prepared to kill her children and herself by poisoning her ice cream. Just before she was to serve, her pastor called to see how she was. By the time the conversation was over, the ice cream had melted and the assassination plan had fallen apart.

Cases such as the Duxbury massacre are rare but unforgettable. Everyone remembers Susan Smith, who dumped her two young children in a lake in 1994, and Andrea Yates, who drowned five of her children in a bathtub in 2001. from postpartum psychosis.

Mayer noted that in Canada and the United Kingdom, a woman cannot be convicted of first-degree murder if she kills her child during the postpartum period.

In the United States, mothers often receive severe punishment for hitting their children. “If a mother does this it is even more terrible in our minds,” she said.

UMass’s Byatt finds it “concerning” that the Duxbury mother was charged with murder. If she had postpartum psychosis, she had no control over what she was doing, Byatt said.

Postpartum depression, which is triggered by hormonal changes after pregnancy, is more common than postpartum psychosis, but both can be prevented with treatment if doctors look for warning signs during pregnancy and after birth, Dr. said 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 a higher risk.

“This is a very serious situation,” Robinson said. “It’s more than just being sad or crying from time to time.”

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

“Having a child under one year old and having a few other children is a life crisis,” Robinson said. “You’re at a really high risk of burnout. And if you have your own mental disorder and you don’t have help — your kids can be difficult, just plain difficult. . . . It can take you to the point of being mentally ill.” Could.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call 988 or visit to chat online.

Phyllis J. Freyer can be reached at [email protected] follow him on twitter @felicejfreyer,

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