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Mental illness or murder? Let court decide


Tragic is one way to sum up the deaths of five Texas children last week at the hands of their mother. Intriguing is one way to describe the public reaction to the tragedy.

Remember six and a half years ago when Susan Smith sent her children to their death by allowing her car containing the children to roll into a Union, S.C. lake? The nation’s collective heart bled for her when she cried into the lens of a television camera, begging for whoever had abducted her children to bring them home. Of course, she was lying to cover up her crime, and the nation reacted predictably -- with outrage. But it was as much at the fact that she attempted to act and lie her way through a cover-up as it was for the actual deed.

Now comes the unbelievable news that Andrea Yates, a 36-year-old mother of five, drowned each of her five young children, one by one, in the family bathtub last Wednesday. News reports indicate that Yates may have been suffering from post-partum depression, which occasionally occurs in women who have just given birth, for at least the second time in her life.

Russell Yates, the woman’s husband and father of the five children, has stood steadfastly in his wife’s defense, saying that the woman who killed the five children was not his wife -- implying that she is not of sound mind.

Anyone who values the sanctity of human life would agree. But there is still a wait-and-see attitude in the court of public opinion -- in part because Mrs. Yates may have been and still be suffering from extreme mental illness.

The consensus of mental health professionals who have been questioned by the media is that post-partum depression alone would not be enough to drive a woman to kill her five children systematically. Symptoms of post-partum depression, according to the obgyn.net web site, include: dysphoric mood; loss of interest in usually pleasurable activities; difficulty concentrating or making decisions; psychomotor agitation or retardation; fatigue; changes in appetite or sleep; recurrent thoughts of death/suicide; feelings of worthlessness or guilt, especially failure at motherhood and excessive anxiety over child's health.

However, psychosis -- which Mrs. Yates may be suffering from, according to some reports -- is characterized by a loss of contact with reality, according to the drkoop.com web site.

"Neurosis is a similar condition but milder -- a neurotic person knows he or she is ill, whereas a psychotic person usually does not realize that he or she cannot think, perceive, or judge clearly. Psychosis is what is commonly thought of as ‘madness’ or ‘crazy’ behavior," according to the site.

As the evidence unfolds, the opinions of the courts of Houston, Texas and public opinion will probably hinge greatly on whether or not Mrs. Yates is judged to be psychotic as opposed to "merely" depressed. Expect to hear much more on the distinction between the two grades of mental illness, as the state of Texas will decide whether Mrs. Yates is a cold-blooded murderer or a victim of psychosis.

This editorial appeared in the June 26, 2001 edition of the Piqua (Ohio) Daily Call.

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