Recently, I watched a documentary on Netflix called When the Bough Breaks. The documentary tells the stories of women who have suffered from postpartum depression and psychosis. Some of those women recovered, and some didn’t. It was a heart-wrenching documentary that brought to light an important issue that is so severly stigmatized that we struggle to talk about it in any robust or helpful way.
Some of the stories featured in the film involve cases of women killing their babies. Interestingly, some women are charged and acquitted of murder on the grounds that they experienced a psychological break that absolves them of responsibility for “murder”. I found this fascinating. Essentially, the trauma of childbirth and motherhood can trigger these postpartum syndromes. And women who commit these acts as a result of postpartum syndromes are not always punished for it. I think this is probably a good thing. But here’s the rub…
What about the many people (especially black and brown folks in the ‘hood) who live with the engulfing trauma of perpetual poverty, community violence, substance addictions, absent caregivers, etc. There are all kinds of traumas for poor and working class black and brown people, and aren’t those traumas just as likely to cause mental health problems? And yet when those folks commit crimes (even petty ones) that stem from these problems, they are criminalized and shoved into the corrections system.
I mean, it’s no surprise that our society has much more sympathy and grace for anxious, suburban white women who commit infancticide. And…you know…we could go there. But actually, I think we should consider importing the rubric we use to evaluate their crimes into communities where trauma and mental health issues are most assuredly widespread and consider alternative ways of dealing with what happens there. We feel sorry for the postpartum mom and let her off the hook. But we don’t feel sorry for the PTSD teenager, and we lock him up.