Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Not Just the Baby Blues: The Tragedy of Andrea Yates

SerendipUpdate's picture

Biology 202
2004 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Not Just the Baby Blues: The Tragedy of Andrea Yates

Elissa Seto

Many of us envision motherhood as a joyous time in women's lives. Holding one's own newborn baby in her arms must bring great happiness to mothers. However, what happens when those feelings begin to subside, and those feelings of happiness are replaced with anger, hate, guilt, and loneliness? On June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates had those feelings overcome her and she killed all five of her children by drowning them in the bathtub (8). Yet, as disturbing and shocking as the event was, what surprised many other people is that there were many mothers who understood or sympathized with Yates.

"As I was changing my son on his changing table, an intrusive thought started running through my head, 'What if I push him off the table?'" (3)

"I would look at the baby and just say, oh, how vulnerable it is. I could put a pillow of the top of it. Its neck was so tiny, it could break so easily." (3)

Up to eighty percent of women suffer from baby blues after they have children (6). Ten percent suffer from postpartum depression (6), and about one in 500 have the most serious case, postpartum psychosis (6). Andrea Yates suffered from postpartum psychosis and this led her to kill all of her children. Her illness began after she had her fourth child and tried to commit suicide. After her fifth child, she tried to commit suicide again, and she was hospitalized twice (9). However, both times, she was released from the hospital while she was still ill. Finally, the postpartum psychosis took over Yates when she drowned all of her children. While Yates was afterward able to recognize that killing her children was a horrendous thing to do, at the time she was not in a stable mental state of mind. This event exemplifies how serious postpartum psychosis is. Though rare, baby blues can escalate to postpartum depression, which could then turn into psychosis if left uncared. Psychosis is not a mental illness that can be cured with a few visits to the therapist or a prescription to an anti-depressant. More research must be conducted in order to understand the nature of the disease, and how to help the women and their families who suffer from it.

The least detrimental of the three illnesses is postpartum blues, also known as the baby blues. The baby blues usually occur in the first few weeks after childbirth for women and they can include mood swings of happiness and sadness. The new mothers can feel irritable, stressed, and lonely. These feelings may last only for a few hours or for multiple weeks (6). It has been shown in many cases that women can overcome the baby blues without receiving professional counseling or medication (5).

Postpartum depression is more serious than the baby blues. The feelings of sadness, anxiety, irritability, and stress are also apparent, yet far more acute than in the baby blues (5). The women's ability to function everyday is affected, and she may neglect the care of the baby (5). Other symptoms include fatigue, exhaustion, confusion, and changes in appetite (3).

The gravest case of postpartum illness is postpartum psychosis. Though extremely rare, it is the most dangerous, and requires medical attention for recovery (5). In addition to the symptoms of postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis also includes visual and auditory hallucinations (5). Frequent thoughts of hurting the baby may enter the mother's mind, and she may actually carry out those thoughts (3).

The exact cause of depression is still not known, because it may vary with each individual. The term "depression" can be used to describe a variety of moods, from mild feelings of sadness to deep severe melancholia (4). There are theories due to biological, genetic and environmental factors. The biological factors are related to the hormone, such as cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that controls the body's response to stress, anger, and fear. When people are depressed, cortisol will peak in the morning, and does not decrease later in the day, as it does in normal people (1).

A possible neurobiological factor is that there may be an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain (1). Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help the brain cells communicate with each other. Two neurotransmitters linked to depression are serotonin and norepinephrine. When there are deficiencies in neurotransmitters, impulses sent between nerves are decreased (4). Deficiencies in those neurotransmitters cause changes in sleep habits, increase irritability and anxiety, and may make individuals feel sadder and fatigued (1).

Postpartum depression may also have some other causes besides those of regular depression. When a woman is pregnant, her female hormonal levels change dramatically. Estrogen and progesterone increase during the pregnancy, and after childbirth, the levels decrease rapidly down to the levels before the woman was pregnant (5). These fluctuations are similar to those prior to when a woman menstruates, and can be more irritable and depressed. With postpartum depression, the levels of estrogen and progesterone may not be decreasing at a normal rate, causing an imbalance in the system. This may lead to symptoms of the various forms of postpartum illnesses.

While forms of postpartum depression were recognized in Yates, she never completed any treatment of her depression or psychosis due to insurance limitations (3). However, her husband and her doctor did not recognize the seriousness of the situation. Apparently, her husband, Russell, said to a friend, "I'm not going to coddle her, I'm not going to hold her hand. She needs to be strong, she needs to help herself." (2). However, when depression is as deep as Andrea Yates' psychosis, the ability to help oneself is incredibly decreased. Proof that Andrea was definitely suffering from postpartum psychosis is that she would hear voices in her head telling her to hurt other people, including the children (3). However, Russell still did not see Andrea as a threat to their children, despite two suicide attempts, including one after the birth of her fifth child (9). Scarily enough neither did Andrea's doctor, who two days before she killed the children, did not believe that Andrea needed to be hospitalized (3).

Unfortunately, it has taken the deaths of all of one family's children to shed light on the gravity of the issue of postpartum depression. Postpartum illnesses can affect any mother, whether she has had one baby or four, and it can recur, as can be seen with the case of Andrea Yates. Since neither her husband nor her physician was able to recognize that Andrea was suffering from a serious illness, more research must be done in order to understand the disease, and how to recognize it. These events, though rare, can be prevented. Psychosis is not something that people can just snap out of, but must be treated with great care as it is a disease that obviously has severe consequences. Although, in the trial for Andrea Yates, the jury did not believe that she was insane at the time of the killing, it is obvious that she has suffered from postpartum depression and psychosis. Her illnesses do not excuse the fact that she committed these atrocities, but learning more about the illnesses will help people understand why she did it, and how to prevent other situations like this.


1) Causes of Depression

2) "I Could Just Kick Him"

3) More Than the Baby Blues

4) The Neurobiology of Depression

5) The Postpartum Depression

6) The Postpartum Depression

7) Postpartum psychosis: a difficult defense

8) Postpartum Psychosis to blame for murdered Houston Children?

9) Russell Yates describes wife as a victim


Comments made prior to 2007

Regarding: The Tragedy of Andrea Yates.
Two elements combined to cause Mrs Yates to murder her children--mental illness and religion. If either of these elements had been eliminated, the event might never have occurred. Everyone should agree that if she did not suffer postpartum depression the murders would not have occurred. No one can even admit that the other element exists. Religion gets a "free ride" every time a crime of this nature occurs. Afterall, we cannot have our religions supporting child sacrifices. Mrs Yates stated that she killed her children while they were in their "innocent" years to prevent them from burning in hell for eternity. Sadly, no one believed her. Christian pastors now claim that the souls of John, Paul, Noah, Luke, and Mary Yates are with God in heaven. That is, she was successful and we even give her positive feedback! None of her four diagnosed mental illnesses taught her this false belief; she learned it in church. Many other depressed Christian mothers have performed the same! act before and after Mrs Yates' crime. Expect it to continue. There will always be postpartum depression, we can only seek better treatment and intervention to prevent the final act. However, the second element can be eliminated! No religion should include as part of its theology that it is logically a good idea to murder innocent children. That is, all souls live for eternity in heaven or hell. But children who die before ever knowingly committing a sin go immediately to heaven for eternity. Therefore, when Christian mothers reach the depths of their depression, they can perform that one great act of kindness and insure that their children are saved from hell. The names of 24 childred murdered due to this false "Christian" theology are listed at my website We need to terminate this growing list now! Please read the details of how religion was involved in the Yates murders at
Glad to have found your website ... Terry, 27 February 2006