Mother’s suicide should signal governor to act — (Chicago Tribune)

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Chicago Tribune

March 02, 2004

Stories don’t get much more heartbreaking, more piteous, than the story of Andrea Campanari, the 33-year-old Evanston woman who killed herself Friday in the bathroom of a Chicago bagel shop.

A week earlier she had given birth to a son, Joaquin, her first child. But afterward, her husband told reporters and police, she fell into a depression so severe that he took her to a hospital to be examined. The medication she received there apparently did not quiet the chemical storm in her brain that often follows childbirth.

Up to 20 percent of new mothers experience anxiety, depression or other symptoms that fall under the heading of postpartum depression, according to psychologist Diana Lynn Barnes of Postpartum Support International, a California-based awareness group.

A manifestation of these feelings so extreme that it mimics insanity–called postpartum psychosis–strikes roughly 1 in 1,000 new mothers, Barnes said. A small percentage of those women, she said, attempt to kill themselves or their babies.

At 9 a.m. Friday, Campanari went out for a walk. She told her husband, a business student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, that she needed “some space to pull her thoughts together,” he said in a TV interview. Four hours later, police found her body in a locked bathroom. A police lieutenant told the Tribune that Campanari had slit her wrists and stabbed herself in the chest.

“This disease makes women do awful things,” said Carol Blocker, a local activist who has been trying to focus public attention on postpartum illness since June 2001, when her daughter, Melanie Stokes, jumped to her death from the 12th-story window of a Chicago hotel five months after giving birth.

Blocker maintains melaniesbattle.org, a Web site that links to many informational resources including portions of “Descent into Darkness,” a 2003 Tribune series by Louise Kiernan.

Blocker’s site also links to another cause dear to her, the home page of the Committee to Free Debra Gindorf. Members of that group have been waiting patiently for 10 months to see if Gov. Rod Blagojevich really understands their issue or was just pandering when he declared May 2003 Postpartum Depression Awareness Month.

In his formal proclamation, Blagojevich asked “all citizens to recognize the serious and debilitating disorder that affects childbearing women and their families.”

At the time, I thought the new governor was going to take the opportunity to illustrate his understanding and compassion by releasing Gindorf, who was 20 years old and estranged from her abusive husband in March 1985, when she fed her 3-month-old son, Jason, and 23-month-old daughter, Christina, lethal doses of sleeping medication in their suburban Zion apartment, then attempted to take her own life.

No one recognized Gindorf’s condition at the time and no one offered any treatment or help as she hatched a plan to escape to heaven with her children.

Numerous experts, including the psychiatrist who testified against her in her murder trial, have since concluded that Gindorf suffered from severe postpartum psychosis.

Lake County State’s Atty. Mike Waller said a year ago that he does not “object to the governor granting relief to Debra Gindorf,” who was found guilty but mentally ill and sentenced to life without parole.

Indeed, no one testified against Gindorf at the special hearing that the openly sympathetic Illinois Prisoner Review Board granted her last April. Gindorf was sentenced before psychiatry or society had a good understanding of the power of postpartum illness.

Research by DePaul University law professor Michelle Oberman found that from 1988 to 2000, all five of the women in the U.S. who were diagnosed with postpartum psychosis after killing their child were sentenced to probation and mental-health treatment.

Yes, it would take a bit of political courage for Blagojevich to release a baby killer. Does he have it?

He and his advisers let the review board’s recommendation on Gindorf languish through Postpartum Depression Awareness Month and right up through today, waiting on or looking at they won’t say what.

Now comes the terrible tragedy of Andrea Campanari to remind us all how real and terrible the demons were that briefly and so long ago held Debra Gindorf in their grip. It’s a merciless disease and demands a merciful act.