What is postpartum depression?

Alberta resident Allyson McConnell drowned her 10-month-old and two-year-old sons in 2010. She was convicted of manslaughter in the deaths.
Alberta resident Allyson McConnell drowned her 10-month-old and two-year-old sons in 2010. She was convicted of manslaughter in the deaths. Global News

TORONTO – A Connecticut woman who was shot to death by police after a car chase on Capitol Hill suffered from postpartum depression, according to her mother, a factor that’s returned the illness to the spotlight.

Thirty-four-year-old Miriam Carey was driving with a one-year-old girl in her car during the chase Thursday afternoon. The girl avoided serious injury and was taken into protective custody.

The incident comes two months after the body of Winnipeg mother Lisa Gibson, 32, was found in the Red River. Her children, three-month-old Nicholas and Anna, 2, were found unresponsive in a bathtub at their home three days prior, and police concluded it was a double homicide-suicide.

A member of Gibson’s extended family told Global News the new mom had sought treatment for postpartum depression, which has raised the question of whether postpartum psychosis was a factor in the deaths.

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While the birth of a child is both emotionally and physically challenging for women and can lead to mood swings and negative feelings, postpartum depression is a deeper, ongoing depression that lasts much longer than the first days after delivery.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) cites research that identifies three types of postpartum depression.

1. Baby blues

  • starts 1-3 days after delivery and can last several weeks
  • symptoms include weeping, irritability, lack of sleep, mood changes, feeling of vulnerability
  • affects approximately 50 to 80 per cent of mothers

2. Postpartum depression

  • can start any time between delivery and six months post-birth; can last up to a year
  • symptoms include despondency, tearfulness, feelings of inadequacy, guilt, anxiety, irritability, fatigue
  • additional physical symptoms include headaches, numbness, chest pain, hyperventilation, loss of appetite, insomnia, loss of interest in sex, thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
  • mother may regard child with ambivalence, negativity or disinterest and could result in a negative effect on bonding with her child
  • affects approximately three to 20 per cent of mothers but tends to be underreported

3. Postpartum psychosis

  • extreme confusion, fatigue, agitation, alterations in mood, feelings of hopelessness and shame, hallucinations, rapid speech or mania, attempts to harm yourself or your baby
  • affects only one in 1,000 births
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While the exact cause of postpartum depression is unknown, the Mayo Clinic suggests physical, emotional and lifestyle factors all play a role.

The drop in estrogen and progesterone hormones after childbirth could contribute to depression, as well as a drop in hormones produced by the thyroid gland that can leave people tired and sluggish. Fatigue and mood swings could be partially caused by changes in blood volume, blood pressure, immune system and metabolism.

Caring for a newborn can also leave women overwhelmed and sleep-deprived, which can cause anxiety and a feeling of a loss of control. Women could feel less attractive or struggle with their sense of identity, which can also contribute to depression.

Trouble with breastfeeding, financial problems, a lack of support or a demanding baby or older siblings may be some lifestyle factors that can lead to postpartum depression.

Risk factors include a history of depression or postpartum depression, stressful life events leading up to the birth, a weak support system or if the pregnancy was unplanned or unwanted.

While it is rare for those who experience postpartum depression harm their children or themselves, some high-profile murders committed by mothers in Canada have involved the illness.

Calgary mother Harjit Kaur Bhuller Brar drove to a bridge and threw three of her young daughters into the freezing water in the spring of 1979. A passing jogger watched as she held her fourth child, a two-month-old infant, and jumped in herself, reports the Edmonton Journal.

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Police reportedly looked into a theory that Brar suffered from “a depressed state some mothers suffer as a result of body changes after giving birth.” It was described as Calgary’s worst murder-suicide, according to the Journal.

In February 2010, Alberta resident Allyson McConnell drowned her two-year-old and 10-month-old sons. Police Const. Johnathon Lepine testified in March 2012 that he’d had a conversation with Curtis McConnell about his ex-wife’s mental health.

“He advised me she suffered from postpartum depression after the last baby was born,” said Lepine. McConnell admitted to drowning her sons, and then trying to kill herself by jumping off a bridge.

McConnell was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years for each boy’s death, to be served concurrently. She also received two-for-one credit for her time in custody. In the end, her sentence was reduced to 15 months, which she finished serving April 4, 2013. Days later she returned to her native Australia.

In October 2012, a Canadian mother suffering from postpartum depression pleaded guilty to killing her two babies in the U.K.

Felicia Boots, who reportedly tried to slit her wrists following the murders, said she had abandoned her medication, fearing it would affect her second pregnancy.

The judge deemed the murders “solely the result of psychological and bio-physiological forces that were beyond her control” and ordered her to be detained at a psychiatric hospital.

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For more information on treatment options and support for those suffering from postpartum depression, visit the Mayo Clinic or the CMHA.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated from its original July 29, 2013 version to include information about the events in the U.S. Capitol car chase and police shooting.