I was just 14 years old when I started babysitting for a family in our neighborhood every summer. They had two kids at the time, and I would bring a bag full of crafts and games with me every day for us to play with.
I kept that job for several summers, until the year their third baby was born. That summer, the mother I had come to know so well was overtaken by severe postpartum depression. It was so bad that she begged her husband not to ever leave her alone with the kids. She was plagued by thoughts of hurting them and herself, convinced that this world was a terrible place that they would all be better off leaving. In her logical moments, she knew this was crazy; but she was afraid of what might happen in the moments when all logic left her.
So, her husband and I came up with a plan. She was technically still home on maternity leave, but he and I worked together to ensure she was never alone with the kids. That summer, I often spent 10-hour days at their home, always waiting to leave until he walked through the door.
When school started back up for me, she still wasn’t in a great place. I believe they wound up having a family member move in with them to help, but I don’t really remember. I was only a teenager at the time, and I knew very little about postpartum depression and psychosis.
Just one year later, news of Andrea Yates drowning her five children due to postpartum psychosis was everywhere. I remember feeling sick to my stomach when I first heard, wondering just how close to a similar tragedy the children I’d spent summers watching and loving had been.
Wondering how close their mother, who I’d always known to be a loving and good mother before that summer, had come to making the same unthinkable choice.
In September of this year, a similar tragedy struck in Long Beach, Calif. Authorities were called to the home of Ken Ventanilla at 6:35 a.m. when he walked into his 8-week old son’s room to find that his wife, Charlene Ventanilla, had stabbed their baby and then herself. Both were dead by the time he found them.
Now Ken is speaking out, describing Charlene as “the sweetest woman, the greatest wife I could ever ask for and the best mother” to the local ABC News affiliate. He wants the world to know that his wife was not the woman who took their son’s life before then taking her own. That was the postpartum depression. It was the postpartum psychosis.
Charlene was actually scheduled for an appointment to be evaluated for postpartum depression the day after she killed her baby and herself. Just the night before, she had been assuring both Ken and her mother that she was doing better, that everything was going to be OK, according to her husband.
A friend told me recently that depression lies. That it tells you the world would be better off without you, even when nothing could be further from the truth.
Ken believes the same. “I’m not going to let Charlene and Shane go in vain, so I’m going to spread awareness. I feel like I have this new mission in my life to spread hope,” he said.
One in seven pregnant and new mothers will have a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, according to Postpartum Progress, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness and provides services and programming about maternal mental illness.
We need better screening for new moms, a better understanding of what to look out for, and more resources available for those who are struggling to get the help they need.
Charlene was a good mom. She was a loving wife. And because of postpartum depression and psychosis, she and her baby are now gone. But her husband is fighting to ensure they aren’t lost in vain.
The motivation pushing him forward after experiencing such a personal tragedy? “That I can prevent this from happening, that I can save someone’s life, that I can save a mother and I can save a family,” he said in an interview with local news reporters.
It starts with awareness. And then, it’s about finding ways to help.
If you or someone you know is suffering from postpartum depression, anxiety, or psychosis, Postpartum Progress has a list of resources available to help.