What is postpartum psychosis? What may have been behind the Lindsay Clancy tragedy
The tragic story of Lindsay Clancy, the Massachusetts mother charged with killing her three young children last week, has cast a spotlight on postpartum psychosis – a little-discussed condition that experts say is often compounded by shame and guilt.
“Women who have a baby are expected in our society to love that baby immediately,” Dr. Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, explained to NBC Boston this week.
“If someone has postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis, they may not feel the natural maternal feelings, then they feel guilty and are reluctant to even tell their husband or their obstetrician or pediatrician about their feelings.”
Clancy, 32, of Duxbury, was hospitalized in police custody on Jan. 25 after she allegedly strangled her daughter Cora, 5, and son Dawson, 3, and left her infant severely injured before attempting to take her own life.
She is now facing additional charges after baby Callan, 8 months, was pronounced dead at Boston Children’s Hospital two days later.
Prior to the tragedy, Clancy – who was on leave from her job as a labor and delivery nurse from Massachusetts General Hospital – had shared on social media about her struggles with anxiety in new motherhood.
NBC Boston previously reported that Clancy suffered from postpartum depression, though family members did not respond to questions as to whether she also dealt with psychosis.
What is postpartum psychosis?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, postpartum psychosis (PPP) is a rare, treatable but “severe” mental health condition that can affect individuals after they give birth.
Symptoms can include hallucinations and delusions, as well as mood changes, depersonalization and agitation.
“They’ll have hallucinations where the baby’s face isn’t their baby anymore,” Kylie Chaffin, a licensed mental health counselor with Perinatal Mental Health, told KXLY of the hallucinations experienced by some PPP patients.
“[Someone with PPP will] be, like, this isn’t my baby. Someone has taken my baby or the baby’s face turns into the face of their mother or someone else they know.”
While those with a history of mental health conditions like bipolar and major depressive disorder are at an increased risk for PPP, the Cleveland Clinic also outlines other risk factors like sleep deprivation or hormonal changes.
Unlike postpartum depression, which Postpartum Support International reports affects about 15% of women, PPP is more rare, and generally impacts about .1-.2% of births.
Do parents with postpartum psychosis hurt their children?
In the wake of the Clancy family tragedy, experts are stressing that very few sufferers of PPP physically harm themselves or their babies – and that those who do often believe they are doing the right thing.
Postpartum Support International states that 4% of PPP sufferers commit infanticide, and 5% die by suicide.
“In nearly all the cases that are true postpartum psychosis, there really is not malicious intent [against the children],” postpartum psychosis expert and Postpartum Support International board member Michele Davidson told NBC Boston.
“It’s basically these women trying to save their babies or take their babies with them to heaven.”
Postpartum psychosis in popular culture
While PPP and other postpartum mental health struggles are often discussed with some trepidation, they have also been the impetus for major moments in popular culture.
In 1892, for example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which describes a lonely young wife’s experience with severe postpartum depression and hallucinations.
Now an American literary classic, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is believed to be somewhat based on Perkins Gilman’s own experience with depression following the birth of her daughter less than 10 years before.
More recently, award-winning actress Claire Danes played a driven new mother in the grips of postpartum depression in “Fleishman is in Trouble,” the much-lauded Hulu adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel of the same name.
The PPP tragedy that most Americans remember, however, is real-life horror of Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five children in June 2001 during a severe bout of postpartum psychosis, depression and schizophrenia.
“The first time I saw [Yates], three weeks after the homicides, she felt justified and that she had done what was best for her children,” Resnick recounted to NBC Boston.
After consistent treatment with antidepressants and antipsychotics, he continued, Yates realized that “she had earlier psychotic beliefs, and of course had terrible regret and severe depression over losing her children.”
Initially sentenced to life in prison, Yates’ conviction was overturned and she was deemed not guilty by reason of insanity in 2006.
Nearly 22 years after her childrens’ deaths, Yates resides at a mental hospital. Her attorney, George Parnham, says she waives her right to possible release every year.
“Twenty-years plus [after the murders], and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Andrea,” he told Fox News Digital this week.
How to get help
Though PPP comes with a host of troubling symptoms, experts across the board say the condition is extremely treatable.
“The biggest thing is talking about it with someone else,” Chaffin said.
“There are resources to get help.”
Among those resources is Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, a nonprofit that helped launch the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline providing free, confidential support to pregnant or postpartum mothers.
Postpartum Support International also offers help online, via phone and in-person.
For Resnick, the most important factor in encouraging PPP sufferers to seek treatment is reducing the stigma around it and other mental health conditions.
“[PPP] doesn’t show a decreased maternal capacity or shameful behavior,” he said.
At the time of her alleged crimes, Lindsay Clancy was reportedly in an intensive program for postpartum depression.
On Sunday, her husband, Patrick Clancy, posted on the family’s GoFundMe page urging the public to forgive his wife.
“I want to ask all of you that you find it deep within yourselves to forgive Lindsay, as I have,” the heartbroken father wrote.
“The real Lindsay was generously loving and caring towards everyone — me, our kids, family, friends, and her patients. The very fibers of her soul are loving. All I wish for her now is that she can somehow find peace.”
In the days since the tragedy, the fundraiser set up by the couple’s friend raked in over $950,000 in donations.
As of Tuesday, Clancy had not appeared before a judge or entered any pleas to the charges against her. It is understood that she is still receiving medical care.