Mothers killing babies: A Positive Mental Health Perspective

Becoming a mother is expected to bring joy and fulfillment. The unusual act of Infanticide is the intentional killing of infants. It is a dastardly act which is more commonly carried out by women. Recently, the news of a 21-year-old lady in Enugu who allegedly (she has not been found guilty) killed her newborn child was trending on social media. My thoughts keep revolving around the fact that something could have been done to prevent this irreparable damage to the family. The question is why some women kill their babies? It is definitely not a normal thing for a woman to kill her baby.

I will not be talking about the traditional or cultural reasons which might be the basis for these acts. I will rather give a brief overview of the psychosocial perspective of such occurrences.

  • From the social perspective, life circumstances which seem overwhelming for the mother could trigger off a thought process that lay the foundation of conceiving the idea that things will be better if the young child or the newborn child is out of the picture.

This could occur in cases of unwanted babies from pregnancies out of wedlock or pregnancies conceived in relationships with limited affection between the mother and the person who impregnated her. There was a case of a physically challenged woman who murdered her newborn child due to the fact that she was raped by the father of the child. Another social context is when there are prevailing economic challenges impacting on the mother or family. There was a recent case of a woman who cut off the head of her day old baby to make rituals for getting rich. She claimed that she was motivated to carry out the act in order to make money for the support of her family. She confessed to this unbelievable act.  Infants with severe illnesses or deformities can also be killed by their mothers. This is perceived to be a form of mercy killing for the child.

  • Psychological causes generally are situations in which the mother has an underlying mental illness which has limited her capacity to understand the act, or her ability to control her impulses.

These could range from having a depressive illness to being overtly psychotic. A woman with a pre-existing (underlying mental) illness could carry out this act under the influence of the illness condition. The stress of labor and the functioning associated with the care of the newborn could also be significant stressors that could trigger off an illness or cause a relapse of a previous illness that has gone into remission. Commonly applicable terminologies include; postpartum psychosis, puerperal psychosis, postpartum depression etc. Such women could be having delusional thoughts about the existent of the child. Others could be responding to hallucinatory experiences or perceived influences from external agents. Sometimes, these psychotic experiences could be given psycho-spiritual interpretations within the context of our cultural or religious backgrounds. These interpretations tend to influence the pathway for seeking a solution to the problem, which could adversely affect the outcome of the condition.

How do we prevent infanticide?

  1. Contraception- Women should be empowered to practice a birth control method that it is effective, relevant and acceptable to their religious or cultural background. This should be taught early in life to enable women who are ready to have sex also have the right knowledge to be able to practice safe sex.
  2. Planned parenthood- An extension of birth control is towards attaining the capacity to plan the number and how often a woman wants to have children. These will prevent unwanted pregnancies and allow the married couples to be able to determine the number of children they are capable of nurturing.
  3. Women empowerment- Many cases of infanticide are carried out by women who are economically disadvantaged. Empowering women will go a long way to strengthen their capacity to care for themselves and their children.
  4. Psychosocial support for young girls and women- Providing both informal (within the family) and formal psychosocial support system for our young girls and women will go a long way to help them to have a backup when things go wrong. The formal support system is the governments’ agencies in charge of women and other social interventions. These could also involve non-governmental organizations. These formal psychosocial support systems are organized to intervene when the informal (family) support system is not in place.
  5. Early diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in women- Mental illnesses are like any other illness. We all need to be aware of the early signs. These include changes in the thought process, evidenced by the manner or content of the speech of the individual. Other persons may experience disturbances of perception and fluctuating or inappropriate moods. The initial intervention might not require medications and might be for a short time. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid of getting an assessment from a mental health professional.
  6. Integration of psychiatric services into primary health care (PHC) – One of the components (probably the most important in my opinion) of PHC is the care for pregnant mothers and children. It is expected that a pregnant woman begins to attend the closest hospital to her as soon as she gets pregnant. This will be about the 2nd to the 3rd month of pregnancy. This implies that she will be visiting the hospital for 6months -7months. Having a mental health professional or persons who have been trained to effectively diagnose mental illness in this population of women in these settings will enhance early diagnosis and treatment of.

We must admit that some women might just simply be sociopaths or criminals whose murderous instincts are motivated by their selfishness or immoral thought processes. Such women simply need to be made to face the wrath of the law. Being economically or socially disadvantaged is never a valid excuse to be a murderer. However, women who have a mental illness should be protected from being wrongfully incarcerated as this will be akin to a double jeopardy after the loss of their child.

Stay safe and sane; help others do the same by sharing this!!

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Ola Ibigbami

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