Content warning: (Infanticide, PTSD, DV, Suicide)
The nation held its collective breath when Sofina Nikat, mother of 14-month-old Sanaya Shahib, said that her daughter had been stolen by a “black man” whilst they went for their morning walk. Nikat claimed the man smelled strongly of alcohol, wore no shoes, he was African, between 20-30 years old, and that he pushed her down and then unstrapped little Sanaya before running off with the toddler. The story seemed far fetched, Internet sleuths quickly pointed out how could she know the age or gender or ethnicity if she didn’t really see them, how did he unstrap the baby in time, and what the F does African look like? The continent of Africa contains many countries and ethnicities so simply “African” doesn’t cut it. This isn’t 1920s America where a vague story about a “black man” is enough to get everyone gathering their pitchforks. And of course the brother of Nikat speaking about himself more so than the toddler he should have been grieving made everyone even more suspicious. Their suspicions were correct, Nikat has confessed. The “black man” didn’t take her baby. She murdered her baby.
Cue the cries of, “she must have had PND.” People insisting that the mother be shown compassion because nobody in their right mind would do something so horrible, she must have had Postnatal Depression. Compassion is an admirable state but I’ll just give you a moment to think about the full statement and let that sink in. Nobody in their right mind would do something so horrible, she must have had Postnatal Depression…
Recently another Australian toddler died at the hands of his mother. His name was Braxon and his mother was Jasmine Mossman-Riley. Mossman-Riley jumped off a cliff holding her son Braxon after leaving a suicide note on Facebook. It was tragic. Any death is tragic, more so a child, and even more so when that child has the terror and pain of witnessing someone that they love killing them. Mossman-Riley’s family have said that she suffered from PTSD as a result of Domestic Violence and have urged victims to speak out and get help before it is too late. Nobody wants something like this to happen again. A family member of mine, on hearing about this case, decided to take me aside and tell me that she had read about the mother in Sydney who had jumped off a cliff with her child and that the mother who jumped had PND and I also had PND and to call her before I did something like that… blinks… it was mortifying. Let’s not even get into the logistics of the situation. The idea that I could get myself, a four year old and two year old twins off a cliff at the same time when I struggle to merely get them in the car at the same time without losing a sock somewhere. A friend told me to shake it off, she’s just a an older lady concerned about the kids…. but why? Because there’s a subconscious bias that PND = potential baby killer. [My friend, for the record has suffered PND and knows the two aren’t one and the same and wasn’t saying they were.] And not in the same way that anybody could become a killer, people link the two closely. It’s a subconscious bias that needs to be challenged because it is utterly false.
Those who follow my blog know I’m open about my struggles with PND. I even blogged whilst in a psychiatric hospital (first entry is here), but I have never had an urge to hurt any of my children or kill them. I’m a living, breathing, human being, not some blown up stereotype made up by the media, an actual human being. And it was hurtful to be treated as such. As if any time somebody murdered their child, I would be thought of and that other mums, just struggling to get by, and doing their absolute best would be thought of as well. After how hard we try to be the best mums possible, in the end we’re just cut down to mindless killing machines because nothing else matters but that one label – PND. A label that shouldn’t even mean psychotic baby killer in the first place. It was insensitive and it hurt. It was also unfair. And the irony is, the mother had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from Domestic Violence, not Postnatal Depression.
Conservative estimates state that approximately 1 in 7 mothers experience Postnatal Depression. That’s just over 14%. Other figures have the rates considerably higher, even up to 30%. That’s a lot of women. If you know 7 mothers, chances are, at least one of them has experienced Postnatal Depression. Many of them will never have told you and the vast majority of them you will have thought were excellent mothers with good relationships with their children. You’d think that because the vast majority of them are. Depression is not the same as being a pathological killer. It is not the same as not knowing wrong from right. It is not the same as being utterly unable to control your actions. It can be debilitating, it can cause bonding issues, although much less frequently than the media and societal stereotypes would have you believe. It does cause high levels of anxiety around your ability to parent. Anxiety than can interrupt sleep even more so than a baby up all night with reflux, or even twins with reflux. I’ve had both, the singleton, and the twins with reflux. And I’ve also had Postnatal Depression. Never have I ever had a thought to hurt, maim, or murder, any one of my children. Suicide, oh yeah, I’ve contemplated that, murdering another human being, one utterly dependant on me, no I have not. And chances are, the women that you know with PND, regardless of if they have told you they have it or not, also aren’t ticking time bombs just waiting to go off and kill a child.
Beyond Postnatal Depression is Postnatal Psychosis. In this state mothers do lose contact with reality and experience impaired decision making capabilities. Unsupported women with this condition can cause serious damage before they receive help. Supported women in treatment often have successful recoveries and have meaningful relationships with their children. When I was in the Mothers and Babies Unit at a Psychiatric Hospital I met two women who had been diagnosed with this condition. Both were picked up almost immediately after birth. Most cases are picked up within 2 weeks of birth. The first had been in treatment for three months by the time I met her. I would not have realised that she had a serious condition because her treatment had been so successful. I had noted that she did try to avoid being alone with her baby and had thought it was because she was a young mum and was simply anxious. Her anxiety was a whole other level because she still didn’t quite trust herself. She loved her baby very much and did not have murderous intent. So why was she worried? Perhaps explaining what the second woman I met was like might help. The second woman that I met with Postnatal Psychosis had only just been admitted. She had little touch with reality and at times didn’t seem to realise that her baby was her own. Had she been left alone with her baby she could have left it on the side of the street thinking it waa a garbage bag or tossed it into the washing machine thinking the baby was laundry. A pretty terrifying prospect for a young mum to think she might harm her baby without realising. I hope both of those women are doing great now, I know they were in the best place to recover and to embark upon fantastic future because they deserved it. And I don’t think people reminding them every time a child is murdered that they too were once unstable would contribute to that. In fact they’d probably find it not only hurtful that nobody could see their progress but also triggering. Do you really want to trigger a psychotic episode due to your insensitivity? Id also like to note that neither of these women killed their babies. A diagnosis of Postnatal Psychosis does not a killer make. A whole series of negative circumstances surrounding a mental health issue generally contribute to a catastrophic result such as murder, not simply the diagnosis of PND or PNP. So be careful when using a label of mental illness to explain murder because there is far more too it than that and you’re unintentionally vilifying a group of vulnerable people who are far more likely to be the victim of a crime than have one committed against them.
So how about we start being more careful about what we assume about others because of one of the many “labels” that they “wear.” And don’t treat a bunch of anxious mums trying to do their best like unhinged murderers incapable of making a decision, just be nice.