What drives a mother to kill her own child

Sunday Star Times 16 August 09

Professor Sandy Simpson is clinical director of the Auckland Regional Forensic Psychiatry Service. …he says it is not out of the ordinary for mothers who kill while mentally ill which is the case in roughly a third of cases to be described as model parents.

The symptoms of illness envelop the child and themselves.”The ironic thing to get your head around is that the woman’s judgement is so seriously troubled by illness that she thinks she’s doing the right thing even though she’s doing a horrendous thing.” In 2000, Simpson was co-author of a study in which he and colleagues interviewed six women who had killed their child or children while mentally ill. Most of the women had been found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, and none had previously been child abusers; there was no history of repeated abuse, and all had a clear intent to kill. As the women recalled the circumstances leading up to the homicides, the theme of trying to be an ideal parent was common. They talked of the special efforts they made for their children, such as mincing steak instead of buying mince, putting aside time to play with their child to make up for taking them shopping, or of choosing to stay home with the children rather than working….

When Simpson and colleagues interviewed New Zealand women who had killed children while mentally ill, they learnt that a number of them had been in touch with GPs or mental health services, but had felt unable to talk about their fear that they would harm their child. Others had discussed their fears but “the meaning of what they said wasn’t fully understood”. The lesson, says Simpson, is that if a mother says she if fearful she will harm her child “it’s a big deal”. “A complaint like that isn’t a sign that a child needs to be immediately uplifted; that’s the thing that people fear and it’s a big barrier to seeking the help that they need. The best way to help is not to diminish that but to say, good on you for telling us how you feel, and let’s see how we can support you.”Z