A police car sits in the driveway of home on Wilson Hollow Road outside De Soto where a woman and her three children were found dead of gunshot wounds on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. Photo By David Carson, email@example.com
ST. LOUIS • Experts who treat mothers suffering from severe mental illness say it is a rare coincidence that three mothers in the St. Louis area have fatally shot their children and themselves in the last six months.
"Mothers don't kill their children unless they are very ill," said Diane Sanford, a psychologist who has written two books on postpartum depression.
"They believe they are protecting their children from having a life of misery and suffering," Sanford said.
The De Soto deaths followed by barely a month a similar situation in Glendale. Catherine Murch, 42, shot her children, Mitchell III, 10, and Mary Claire, 8, to death before turning the gun on herself while her husband was in another part of their home.
In March, Christine Adewunmi of west St. Louis County drove her three daughters down a gravel road to a remote spot by the Meramec River near Bourbon, Mo., and shot the children and herself with a handgun.
"You hear about one or two cases in a certain part of the country, but this is happening all within the St. Louis area," said Dr. John Rabun, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Washington University. "It's uncommon for it to be so close in time in a close locale. ... It's an anomaly. It raises eyebrows."
Rabun said there are two critical periods for mood disorders affecting mothers: soon after they give birth and during a recurring major depression.
He added that a mother in this condition may experience excessive guilt, convinced that she is not worthy of help. A strong maternal instinct is turned on its head, in a completely irrational way, causing the mother to feel she is saving her children by killing them, he said.
Experts said the great majority of patients with postpartum depression and psychosis respond well to a combination of medication, therapy and support. But if left untreated, they get worse.
"This is a preventable, treatable illness that women and children are dying from," Sanford said.
Charles Sigmund, the father of Catherine Murch, wept Thursday when he learned of Cochran's suicide and the murders of her children.
"My heart goes out to her relatives, but it's something they'll now have to live with," he said from his home in Florida.
Sigmund said his daughter was open about her depression and had sought help with therapy and medication.
"She told us, 'When you get into depression, it's like a downward spiral, and you don't think of anything else but ending it,'" he said. "They're in such agony and torture, and the end result leaves nothing but heartache for those left behind."
The loss of Murch's husband's job just weeks before her death sent her into another spiral, Sigmund said.
"She didn't see a future for them and didn't see any way out," he said. "So she took her life and the lives of her children because she didn't want the kids to suffer."
The question of whether one of these local incidents could have triggered another may be impossible to answer.
"When people are so severely mentally ill, and they read something or see something on the news, they can be influenced by other people's actions and thoughts," Sanford said.
Both experts agreed that the women's decision to use a weapon, specifically a gun, to kill their children and commit suicide is atypical in such cases.
"I'm not sure why that is occurring more," Sanford said. "It seems like a new trend emerging, which is very scary."
Women typically use less brutal methods such as overdose or carbon monoxide poisoning, they said.
Rabun said the stigma attached to mental illness means some people are still willing to try to dismiss serious symptoms, such as suicidal thoughts.
"They don't take it as seriously as chest pain, but it's just as serious," he said.
Sigmund said his faith has helped him get through the last few weeks. "When you lose your child and your grandchildren, a part of you goes with them that you don't ever get back. ... Our faith is strong — it's what got us through. And the comfort and solace you get from people around you, who write you letters and give you hugs, is extremely important."
Women seeking help or information about postpartum depression can call Mother to Mother, a local support and awareness group, at 1-877-644-7001.