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Thursday, 21 June, 2001, 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK
Post-natal depression
Depressed woman
Post-natal depression can occur from two weeks after the birth of a baby
A thirty-six year old Texan woman has been charged with murder after she confessed to drowning her five children in the bath.

Andrea Yates, whose children ranged from six months to seven years, was thought to be suffering from post-natal depression, also called the "baby blues".

Courts in the UK have been known to accept post-natal depression as mitigating circumstances when sentencing women for crimes.

BBC News Online looks at the issues surrounding depression and in particular post-natal depression.

Post-natal depression

Post-natal depression can occur from about two weeks after the birth of a child to two years after and differs from the mood swings suffered by many in the first few days after the child is born.

It is thought to be caused by a combination of sudden changes and a variety of psychological and environmental factors.

Symptoms can range from the mild post birth depression that occurs following about two thirds of pregnancies to the more severe cases, where the mother has to be hospitalised to stop her injuring herself or her baby.

The most severe form of postnatal depression is depressive psychosis. This follows only about one in 1,000 pregnancies and usually starts two to three weeks after childbirth.

Depressive psychosis is marked by severe mental problems; threats of suicide or harm to the baby and sometimes even delusions.

Treatment requires admission to hospital and often antidepressant drugs and possible family therapy.

In the past UK courts have taken into consideration if a woman who had committed a crime was suffering from post-natal depression.

Last year a mother of six from Northern-Ireland was placed on probation for three years after admitting she had killed her husband with a single stab wound to the heart.

Belfast Crown Court heard that Bernadette McIlwaine, aged 38, was suffering from post-natal depression and the effects of alcohol and sleeping pills at the time of the crime.

The prosecution accepted a plea of 'guilty to manslaughter on the basis of diminished responsibility' and did not proceed with a charge of murder.


Anyone can suffer from depression. The most common symptoms include:

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Feeling useless, inadequate, bad
  • A sense of self hatred, constant questioning of thoughts and actions and a constant need for reassurance
  • Feeling vulnerable and being oversensitive to criticism
  • Sense of guilt
  • Loss of energy and the ability to concentrate and be motivated to do even the simplest tasks
  • Harming oneself
  • Sudden loss or gain in weight
  • Sleep disruption or a need to sleep very long hours
  • Agitation and restlessness
  • Loss of libido
  • Physical aches and pains

Most people only suffer two or three of these symptoms at any one time.

People with severe depression may also experience suicidal feelings, stop eating or drinking and suffer from delusions or hallucinations.

Many people who need treatment for depression suffer further bouts later in life.

Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression, but three times as many men commit suicide.

Experts say this could be because women are more likely to admit to depression because of the stigma attached to mental illness.

Different types of depression

There are many other types of depression, including clinically diagnosed depression and manic depression.

Manic depression is marked by extreme mood swings, between highs when a person experiences excessive energy and optimism and lows when they may feel total despair and lack of energy.

It is often treated with lithium or, in extreme cases, electro-convulsive therapy.

Other forms of depression include Seasonal Affective Disorder which is thought to be associated with the approach of winter and may be linked to lack of sunlight.

Causes of depression

Depression can be caused by a combination of factors.

It often runs in families, suggesting a genetic component, but it may be triggered by stressful events.

Major depressive illness is usually linked to some form of chemical imbalance in the brain.

It is also thought that people with low self-esteem, a pessimistic outlook on life and difficulty coping with stress are more prone to depression.

Life events which may trigger depression include bereavement, chronic illness, relationship problems and financial difficulties.



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