Ebony Wilkerson florida

Ebony Wilkerson, post-arrest.
Image: via NBC News

A disturbing story that has been making headlines recently is one that involves a young mother who drove her van into the Atlantic Ocean with her three children trapped inside. 32-year-old Ebony Wilkerson has been subsequently charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder and three counts of aggravated child abuse, according to authorities in Volusia County, Florida.

Reports from witnesses and the children, aged three, nine, and ten, explain that Wilkerson, who is pregnant with her fourth child, locked the doors and rolled up the windows of the minivan before driving it into the surf. Luckily, bystanders and rescuers rushed to pull Wilkerson and her children to safety as authorities arrived on the scene, and no one was seriously injured. The Volusia County Sherriff explained that Wilkerson would be ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation before officials could determine whether she had criminal intent.

Former Florida federal prosecutor and legal analyst Kendall Coffey says that “This clearly was a very disturbed woman,” and that prosecutors could have charged Wilkerson only with aggravated child abuse and waited for further information before deciding whether to upgrade the charges. According to Coffey, it isn’t unusual for police to look to the probable result of the incident, which would have been the death of three children if bystanders had not intervened. Ms. Wilkerson will undoubtedly be punished to the fullest extent of the law, a decision that will protect her children, as well as get her the psychological help she needs.

One of the most harrowing pieces of this story is the fact that this episode could have been narrowly avoided altogether. According to various reports, Wilkinson’s sister had called the authorities days earlier to say that she was worried her sister was having a psychotic episode. Other reports explain that Wilkinson had contacted local police four days before she drove into the water to report that her husband had raped her. Her husband, Lutful Ronjon, has an apparent history of domestic battery, and has been charged with such in the past.

mother drives van into ocean

Brave bystanders rushed to help rescue the children.

It seems that instances of violence triggered by mental illness and psychotic episodes happen far too frequently in our society. If Ms. Wilkinson had received the proper care prior to the incident, would she have experienced the psychotic break that led her to nearly kill her own children? According to Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman, authors of The Stressed Sex: Uncovering the Truth About Men, Women, and Mental Health, “Deeply embedded [societal] sexism means that women’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior are misdiagnosed as insanity,” of the antiquated ways that women’s mental health has been clinically, and socially, perceived.

They continue, “No one, of course, wants to be accused of sexism. This might partly explain why today mainstream mental health professionals, psychologists, and psychiatrists give surprisingly little attention to the question of gender differences,” and why overall rates of psychiatric disorders are generally understood as being unrelated to gender, when it reality, “in any given year total rates of psychological disorder are 20-40% higher in women than men,” according to myriad studies.  

Both Daniel and Jason Freeman attribute our culture’s lack of concern for women’s health to have roots in deep-seated sexism, as well as a glaring double standard. “Maybe we’d see a little more urgency if it were men who were principally affected,” they say, rather than chalking women’s mental health disorders to being connected with emotions and socially constructed ideas of femininity.

The case regarding Ebony Wilkinson is still developing as she and her husband are interviewed and her mental state is evaluated. It is imperative that we as a society critically examine these tragic incidents in order to better understand how they can be prevented in the future. Mental illness, interlaced with abuse and sexual assault as alleged by Wilkinson, can only lead to the perpetuation of further violence; it is inconceivable that innocent children nearly lost their lives because of it.