Cynthia Wachenheim was depressed. She was taking antidepressant medication. She thought she was a bad mother because her baby boy, 10-month-old Keston, had taken two falls.
She was convinced that she had permanently injured her baby, but doctors who examined him disagreed.
In a 13-page suicide note, according a police source quoted by the New York Daily News, she refers to postpartum depression. “She thinks she’s a failing mother. On the last page, she refers to postpartum depression. She was supposed to see a therapist, but she blew him off."
In the suicide note, Mrs. Wachenheim explains to her husband that she knows that by taking her own life and her child's life, by jumping out the window of their 8th floor condo, she will be seen as "evil."
Wachenheim, a legal researcher on child-care leave from her $122,000 a year job at the Manhattan State Supreme Court system, died March 13 in the fall. But her body cushioned the fall for Keston. He survived with only a bruise on his cheek.
The New York Times writes that "Ms. Wachenheim’s leap was a jarring twist in the life of a highly educated, socially conscious woman who had been active in a women’s group in her synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, and, according to her college class notes, had been a coordinator for a Harlem tutoring program."
Her sad demise also raises real questions about awareness of postpartum depression and suicide.
The New York State Health Department says that while as many as 20 percent of new mothers may suffer from postpartum depression, it's rare for new moms – perhaps 1 or 2 for every 1,000 – to be diagnosed with "postpartum psychosis," which may cause suicidal or homicidal thoughts. The NYHD says that the disorder has a 5 percent suicide rate and a 4 percent infanticide rate.
"If the condition is interfering in any way with the woman's ability to do what she needs to do, it might be serious. Do not be afraid to ask if the woman has had suicidal ideation or is obsessed with thoughts of harming herself or her baby. A gentle way to ask this is "some women have thoughts of harming themselves or their baby. Does this happen to you?"
Recognizing suicidal thoughts is one of the primary goals of research into suicide notes being conducted by an Ohio hospital.
The Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center has collected more than 1,300 suicide notes.
John Pestian, the hospital's director of computational medicine, is working with a team using computer algorithms to analyze the language in each note, looking for key phrases and patterns, in order to create a tool that can help mental health workers recognize those considering suicide and prevent it, according to Cincinnati.com.
In a recent clinical trial at Children’s, Pestian’s team tested the algorithm by asking a series of questions to 30 young people with suicidal tendencies and 30 in a control group. “We wanted to know if the computer could tell, by listening to recordings of what they said, which ones are suicidal, and which ones aren’t,” Pestian said.
The computer was 93 percent accurate – identifying those with suicidal tendencies over the control group – while humans were right slightly more than 50 percent of the time with the same groups.
While the tragic case of Wachenheim points up the need for more research and greater awareness, there are many other statistics that also highlight the scope of the problem.
Every 14 minutes in the United States, someone dies by suicide.
"Despite several years of trying to prevent a rise in the number of military suicides, the Pentagon reported last week that, for the first time in a generation, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves last year than were killed in a war zone," according to The Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 5, 2013. "The Army also saw a record in the number of confirmed or suspected suicides – 349 – among both active and nonactive military personnel. This was a 16 percent increase over 2011 despite the end of a US role in Iraq and a decline of troops in Afghanistan."
And during the US recession from 2008 to 2010, the US suicide rate rose four times faster than in the eight years before the economic downturn, according to a study in the British medical journal The Lancet.
Not too surprisingly, Mr. Pestian, the Ohio researcher, says "loss of hope" is the common denominator in suicide notes. The next step in his research is a larger-scale experiment. Then, creation of a computer program that can be used in clinical settings, which is about two years away, he says.