Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What About Andrea Yates?

On July 26, Andrea Yates was found not guilty yesterday of murdering her five children. This is such a difficult case - not at all as cut-and-dry as many (on both sides) would like us to think.

I've heard people say, "Well, I have mental illness and I wouldn't kill my children." When probed further, though, it turns out their mental illness is usually major depression, sometimes bipolar disorder, but never with psychotic features.

The problem I see with that comparison is that while major depression clearly makes life very difficult, it doesn't have the potential for explosion that a psychosis has. Unless your depression has psychotic features, you are FAR less likely to murder your children than Andrea Yates was. She DID have "a secret, scary life." She heard voices in her head telling her God wanted her to murder her children. She apparently literally believed she was saving her kids from hell by sending them to heaven. This is a very serious level of mental illness. It is amazing, and sad, to me that her doctor felt she didn't need the medication any longer. Her children might still be alive if the doctor had continued to treat her correctly.

For some time we attended a large church in our city in which a similar situation had happened - the wife had killed two children due to post-partum psychosis. While we were there, she was allowed to come home - perhaps 10 or 15 years after the crime. She was grieving and repentant over what she had done; at the time she had believed it was what God was calling her to do, but now she understands that she was mentally ill. Her husband has been through tremendous heartache and grief, and losing his wife to a mental institution for years was part of that grief. We had very mixed feelings at the time, and continue to wonder about it, but postpartum psychosis is a strange thing, and recovery IS possible.

Even the argument that "she knew it was wrong" is questionable in a case like this. The trouble lies in the definition of "wrong." In a psychotic disorder, everything becomes twisted, including right and wrong. Does she know society says it's wrong? Certainly. Does she know it's morally wrong? Probably. Does she think it's the right thing for her to do even if it is morally wrong? Perhaps. Does she feel compelled - really compelled, even against her own wishes - to do it regardless of whether it's right or wrong? That's where the big question comes in. Her mind was so confused at this point that it's difficult to know what she was thinking or feeling.

I'm not absolving Andrea Yates of guilt - I agree with those who have said the verdict should have been "guilty, but insane," but there is little doubt in my mind that she was a very sick woman and desperately needed help. Can she be held responsible for what she did, believing God was telling her to do it? I don't know - it's a VERY difficult situation and I think something that must be dealt with individually based on a close knowledge of the situation, not by making blanket statements.

No comments: