PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Whatever was going through the mind of Laurel Michelle Schlemmer, we likely will never know.
The 40-year-old mother of three boys is charged with drowning her youngest son, 3-year-old Luke, in the family bathtub.
His 6-year-old brother, Daniel, survived. A third child was at school.
She told police she heard “voices,” and believed her boys would be better in heaven.
But even more shocking than the act itself is that mothers killing their children is not as uncommon as we would want to believe.
“It’s a cultural taboo for mothers to harm or kill their children, so it’s not something that people want to think happens,” say Dr. Gary Swanson, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Allegheny Health System.
In a major study, the American Anthropological Association found that an estimated 200 moms in this country kill their children each year.
“It’s usually precipitated by something connected to some sort of mental illness or problem,” said Dr. Swanson.
In 2001, the public struggled to comprehend how Andrea Yates could systematically drown her five young children in Texas, carrying each separately to the tub, and then calmly calling to tell her husband what she had done. Yates also had a long history of mental illness.
More recently, and locally, Sharon Flanagan, of West Virginia, was accused of drowning her 2-year-old son in a hotel bathroom in Green Tree.
What is most troubling about these cases is that most often these women give signals before they act.
“And most people’s instant response is, ‘Oh, no you don’t!’ or ‘No you shouldn’t feel that way!’ which is not particularly helpful,” Dr. Swanson said.
Postpartum depression ranging from less serious “baby blues” to outright psychosis is frequently pointed to as a trigger that 50 to 80-percent of moms experience.
Mood disorders are treatable with talking therapy and medications, or in the extreme with hospitalization, but it’s getting that help that’s critical.
“If they’re not in treatment, getting them emergency treatment is critical, especially if they’re saying, ‘I want to hurt myself. I want to hurt someone else,’” Dr. Swanson says.
Dr. Paul Friday, Clinical Psychologist at UPMC Shadyside, joined the KDKA Afternoon News to talk about the voices that people hear and what they mean.
“Auditory hallucinations are not a sign of mental illness, we all hear voices. Some are command hallucinations, which is what we are talking about in this tragedy but every body who is listening here has heard let’s say their mother calling their voice when they are alone in a room, that doesn’t mean you’re crazy,” Friday said.
Friday continued to say that just because you hear voices or have any hallucinations of any of our fives sense it doesn’t mean that you are crazy how you react to these things determines that.
“So many people hear voices, and they are benign, sometimes they are comforting or metaphysical or metaphorical and give us good guidance. There is a story of a woman who was heading into the World Trade Center on 9/11 and heard a voice to get off of the subway at a station before she would have gotten off, she followed it got off and boy wasn’t that a good thing to hear,” Friday said.
Friday says the importance that we put on these voices is key to this discussion and the outcome of people decisions.
“If you have a sense that you are in charge of the voices then this is very good. If you have a sense that the voices are in charge of you, that’s when you need to talk to a mental health professional,” Friday said.
There are plenty of other types of hallucinations that people can experience in any of the five senses, auditory is just the most common.
You can hear the whole interview below: