On January 24th, 2023 Lindsay Clancy, a 32-year-old labor and delivery nurse from Massachusetts, killed all three of her children before slitting her wrists and jumping out of a second-story window. She survived.
On June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates a 37-year-old mother in suburban Texas, drowned all five of her children in their bathtub then calmly called the police to come and take her away. She did not attempt to self-harm.
What have we learned in these 22 years about postpartum mood disorders–depression, anxiety, psychosis? Will the public label Lindsay Clancy a “monster” as they did Yates or has the court of public opinion shifted to one of compassion and sympathy? The tragic postpartum stories we hear about in the news tend to be the most horrific and sensational ones – like infanticide due to psychosis.
As a postpartum doula who specializes in preventing mood disorders, I have seen many of my clients experience anxiety and depression in the months following birth. I hope never to confront a case as serious as this recent incident, yet it’s a sobering thought that postpartum depression remains one of the most common complications of childbirth, affecting approximately 500,000 women annually. It’s an ever-present risk for new mothers, while still being greatly misunderstood, minimized, or completely ignored. Misdiagnosis or inadequate treatment can have devastating repercussions and may be to blame for the outcome in Lindsay Clancy’s case.
Andrea Yates was officially diagnosed with postpartum psychosis and schizophrenia, while Lindsay Clancy is assumed to have had a psychotic break, though her attorney has not revealed an official diagnosis. It has been reported that she was in an intensive five-day-per-week program for postpartum depression. She was evidently trying to get help, her husband was working from home to support her daily, and contrary to what had been reported in the press earlier, he was not warned to “never leave her alone with the children.” Yet, in the few minutes it took to pick up a take-out order, the unthinkable happened.
However, trying to muster empathy for a mother who has just murdered her children is a tall order. Predictably there is a lot of chatter on social media about this case with a number of comments from people who are feeling shock and sorrow. But there are just as many comments speculating about all sorts of diabolical reasons why Clancy took the life of her three children before attempting to take her own. “Linsdsay Clancy did not love her children, and her only motivations were to rid herself of the burden of parenthood and inflict immeasurable pain upon her family.” – Facebook user
Some believe she was simply “tired of being a mother” and wanted a permanent vacation from her kids – that’s why she botched her suicide attempt. Others speculated that she was angry at her husband (for reasons not worth mentioning here) and exacted the ultimate revenge. On Facebook, for example, there is a noticeable absence of understanding about postpartum mental health issues or an unwillingness to believe that it is what drove Clancy’s actions.
Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) are an umbrella description for mental health issues that occur up to one year after the birth of child. The spectrum includes anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, intrusive thoughts and psychosis. Because not every PMAD case is reported, the statistics on its frequency are not accurate. However, we do know that according to the CDC, 1 in 7 women have reported a PMAD, with postpartum psychosis, the rarest form, affecting only .1 to .2 percent of the population.
So why do we hear more often about the rarest of all mood disorders? Because harming a child is an unthinkable act and we are shocked by it. People who are quick to judge may put a woman who kills her children in the same category as Diane Downs or Susan Smith who both committed filicide so they could pursue affairs with men who did not want children.
Clancy and Yates are not in that category; they appear to have been driven by mental illness to commit altruistic filicide. The idea, if the mother were to explain it, would describe an attempt to alleviate the real or imaginary suffering of their children. It’s more accurately called “pseudo altruistic filicide” because clearly the victim does not benefit when murdered. But that’s the perception of the perpetrator.
Forensic psychologist Dr. John Matthias and his reporter wife, Lauren Matthias, have a popular true crime podcast where they discuss this case and compare it to other examples of filicide. “Andrea Yates is an interesting case,” Dr. Matthias says. “A forensic psychiatrist who testified in her defense pointed out that she killed the children because she didn’t want them to be condemned to eternal damnation.” Dr. Matthias went on, “Sometimes extreme religious beliefs help explain the psychosis the person is experiencing. The psychosis is creating a fractured self; the self is falling apart, and instead of saying ‘I’m experiencing psychosis’ somebody will latch onto religious beliefs, as in ‘this is God talking to me’.” For Yates’s religious family, seeking help with medication was what other people — secular folks — did. Andrea and her husband defied doctors’ warnings that one more pregnancy would put Andrea in danger of a psychotic break and unfortunately that’s exactly what happened.
Another area where the public is in some disagreement is accountability and punishment. If Clancy’s defense team can prove that she had no awareness of her crime, that she was impaired by what we’d call temporary insanity, then institutionalization would be a better answer than life in prison. In this case, getting an expert witness to attest to her state is going to be crucially important, as it was for Andrea Yates.
In 2002, Yates was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison. Her conviction was later overturned based on false testimony and a second trial in 2006 resulted in a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Yates was sent to Kerrville State Hospital, a mental health facility, where she remains today. She has now spent a third of her life institutionalized.
Between October 2022 and January of this year, Lindsay Clancy was prescribed 13 different psychiatric medications, her attorney, Kevin Reddington, told the press. “The effects of those drugs and her fragile and emotional state after giving birth to her third child were turning her into a zombie.” The result, Reddington continued, was a “horrific overmedication of drugs that caused homicidal ideation, suicidal ideation. They went through hell — and they didn’t come back.”
The tragedy of this case is still unfolding with Clancy physically and emotionally incapacitated at a Massachusetts hospital. At her arraignment hearing she is seen wide-eyed and blank with a mask obscuring most of her face. At this time, she will stay under hospital care, then be released to house arrest until her trial. How she will be perceived in the court of public opinion is constantly evolving, hopefully with more and clearer understandings of postpartum mental health disorders. On Facebook a mother close to the family had this to say: “Our community and school has been incredible in offering counseling, social services, and therapy animals to help our children, our heartbroken teachers, friends, first responders and neighbors. At the end of the day, our community knows the family, the struggles, and the love they shared.”
And in Lindsay’s husband’s words: “I want to ask all of you that you find it deep within yourselves to forgive Lindsay, as I have. The real Lindsay was generously loving and caring towards everyone – me, our kids, family, friends, and her patients.”
If you or anyone you know is suffering from a perceived perinatal mood disorder, please condider the following local resources:
Partnership for Maternal & Child Health: 973-268-2280 x 154 firstname.lastname@example.org
Mollie Busino, of MindfulPower LLC, Clinical Social Work/Therapist specializing in perinatal mood disorders. mindfulpower.net
Olivia Bergeron, LCSW, specializing in perinatal mood disorders & parent coaching http://www.mommygroove.com/
The Seleni Institute: Perinatal Mental Health https://www.seleni.org/
The Motherhood Center: “Providing a range of treatment options for women suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders” https://www.themotherhoodcenter.com/
Photo: Facebook photo of Lindsay Clancy and family