Evading Blame

The Yates killings highlight the loose language of mental illness


Who killed Russell and Andrea Yates's five children?

The answer seems clear: According to her own confession, their mother, Andrea Yates, did. The Houston woman appears to have drowned them all systematically in their own bathtub on June 20, in a crime that has shocked the nation.

Russell Yates, though, finds that answer too simple. Or simply too disturbing. Mr. Yates, a computer specialist for NASA, doesn't blame his wife for murdering all their children. He seems to think a mental illness is to blame. According to Associated Press reports, he "supports her because her severe depression had driven her to kill." He says "One side of me blames her because she did it, but the other side of me says she didn't…She wasn't in the right frame of mind."

That's an understatement. It is also a vivid example of a problem with loose usage of the language of mental illness. Andrea Yates is said to have suffered from "postpartum depression," a "disease" that strikes 10 percent of mothers. Given her crimes, it is likely that she will be diagnosed with "postpartum psychosis," an even-rarer psychiatric malady afflicting just .2 percent of mothers.

Whether called postpartum depression or psychosis, however, such diagnoses are the result not of objective tests, such as those that track blood sugar levels or cholesterol counts. With mental illnesses, diagnoses are usually ways to categorize behavior. Unlike medical illnesses, which can generally be diagnosed by detecting the pathogens that cause them, psychiatric illnesses are generally diagnosed through what a person says or does. Someone acts listless and unhappy after having a kid? Postpartum depression. Someone drowns all their children after having a kid? Postpartum psychosis.

The idea of mental illness, as psychiatric critic Thomas Szasz has long noted, is primarily used in our culture for either imprisoning the innocent (for treatment in mental hospitals) or exculpating the guilty (through the insanity defense). Mr. Yates's defense of his wife is a crude variation of the insanity defense. He implies she lacks responsibility for her actions because she suffered from an illness called depression.

It seems reasonable to think that the psychiatric diagnosis of "postpartum depression" merely describes a perfectly understandable human reaction: feeling unhappy or out-or-sorts after a major life change or the adoption of a huge new responsibility, one that stretches ahead for a lifetime. Merely giving a medical name to an understandable part of the human condition does not make that name an illness which causes, much less excuses, criminal behavior.

It is between Russell Yates and his conscience if he wants to forgive and forget his wife's monstrous deeds. It could be seen an act of profound charity and mercy on his part to do so. But when Yates adds to the public discussion the idea that his wife wasn't really responsible, that some mysterious entity called "depression" did the awful deed, he does us all a disservice.

American life is already too rife with excuses for people's misdeeds, excuses that cripple the vital concept of personal responsibility. Such excuses can be either cultural or medical. It should be remembered that, in every case, systematic murder is a choice that a person makes, and a choice that they could always have avoided making, no matter what cultural or psychiatric forces are in play. To lose sight of that, as Mr. Yates seems to want to do, is to lose sight of one of civilization's most important distinctions. Clearly, by any normal standards, any murderer is not "in the right frame of mind." That doesn't mean they aren't guilty.