Response to Dr. Ener’s plaque removal

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As an alumnus of Villnova, a former student in one of Professor Ener’s classes, and a current Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology, I am compelled to respond to the flurry of activity over her memorial plaque. By all accounts, it seems as though Dr. Ener suffered from postpartum psychosis. Postpartum psychosis is not a discrete nosological entity, but rather refers to a group of heterogeneous disorders that share the common features of the presence of psychosis and onset of symptoms during the postpartum period. Postpartum psychosis is extremely rare, affecting one to two women per 1000 births. Although there is some debate among researchers, postpartun psychosis is generally considered as belonging to the bipolar spectrum. The prognosis for the individual episodes is considered generally positive but it is a potentially serious illness due to the increased risk of suicide and infanticide. Further, postpartum disorders, let alone psychotic ones, often go unnoticed and undertreated. In fact, a recent study by investigators in the United Kingdom found that psychiatric disorder is the leading cause of maternal death in the postpartum period (28% by suicide). This clearly seems to be evident in Prof. Ener’s case: that she suffered from a severe mental illness and were it not for its presence, it seems unlikely that she would have taken her life and that of her child. While I certainly do not condone Dr. Ener’s actions, I have to wonder about the reasoning of the administration in their decision to remove the plaque. I do not think the plaque was meant to “honor a murderer,” as Bill O’Reilly noted; rather, I think it was meant to honor her life and her positive contributions to her students, her work, and the University. Was their decision to remove it an effort to keep the masses happy? While they claim they recognize the severity of Dr. Ener’s illness, do they have an thorough sense of her condition and its sequalae? I do not know, but I would hope that a Christian institution would have the integrity to stand up for what is fair and just, rather than simply what is popular. Further, now that an outcry has been created, I hope the administration will address the problems associated with mental illness, so that when faced with tragedies in the future, students can react based upon fact and not on emotion. The kindness and good that Dr. Ener did in her life should not be trumped by her tragic death. Rather, I would hope people seek to fully understand the depth of her suffering and of those whom she loved.

Kathryn N. NelsonClass of 1999Ph.D. Candidate in Clinical Psychology, Catholic University