What a New Mom's Suicide Teaches Us

She was convinced she'd caused son brain damage
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 21, 2014 12:09 PM CDT
What a New Mom's Suicide Teaches Us
Postpartum mental illness may not show up as quickly as had been believed.   (Shutterstock)

Experts long thought that symptoms of postpartum mental illness appear within weeks of a baby's birth. But the heartbreaking story of Cindy Wachenheim, recounted in the New York Times, is among the tragedies that defy that theory. When Wachenheim's son was four months old, she began showing signs of mental illness that ended when she jumped out a window, holding her baby as she fell to her death, six months later on March 13, 2013. Miraculously, the baby survived. Wachenheim had long believed that she had caused her son brain damage, even though doctors saw no signs of it. "I’m so so sorry, but I can’t bear for him to suffer more and more," she wrote in a 13-page letter before she died. But today, her son is "walking and talking and a happy little boy," says Wachenheim's sister.

Family members describe Wachenheim, a state Supreme Court lawyer, as well-adjusted: "She loved life, she loved family, she was social," says her sister-in-law Karen—who adds that, years earlier, Wachenheim warned Karen that Karen might have postpartum depression, and convinced her to get treatment. Wachenheim and her husband had difficulty having a baby, but fertility treatment finally helped. Yet after the baby, playing on the floor, hit his head, Wachenheim was convinced he'd suffered brain damage—no matter how many experts told her she was wrong. Despite attempts at intervention from her family, she felt she was responsible. About one or two in 1,000 mothers suffer from postpartum psychosis, researchers say. While "flagrant" cases appear soon after birth, the Times notes, "more subtle forms" appear later, says an expert. Sufferers "tend to have prolonged delusional thinking: 'There’s something really wrong with my baby.'" Click for the full story. (More postpartum depression stories.)

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