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Shanynthia Gardner, a mom of five with a history of mental health challenges, was sentenced to life in prison for killing her children. The murders occurred in 2016.

Ms. Gardner, now 35, killed 4-year-old Tallen, 3-year-old Sya, 2-year-old Sahvi and 6-month-old Yahzi. She was found guilty of first-degree murder for the children; she was also found guilty of aggravated child neglect.

The children’s father, Martin Gardner, noted that Ms. Gardner seemed to be in good spirits on the day of the murders. Ms. Gardner’s oldest child, 7-year-old Dallen Clayton, who is not Mr. Gardner’s son, was able to escape unharmed.

Shanynthia Gardner
Credit: SCSO

Prosecutors ignore mental health issues

The trial for Ms. Gardner took place in December 2021. She had a history of paranoia and earlier in 2016, Ms. Gardner disappeared for days while under the impression that someone was after her.

Dallen Clayton’s grandmother, Sonya Clayton, noted that Ms. Gardner’s mental health challenges were at play in the mother’s decision to kill her children. “That was beautiful sweet young lady. What happened? I don’t understand. I know this was not Shanynthia.”

In 2017, a mental health provider found Ms. Gardner “mentally defective;” she also had several stints in a local psychiatric facility. However prosecutors alleged that Ms. Gardner was aware of her actions on the day she killed the children. 

Mental health challenges shouldn’t be ignored

Mental health challenges in the Black community are often ignored. However, this has resulted in a higher suicide rate among Black citizens than for white people. 

African-American psychologist Dr. Katherine Helm notes that these challenges “often runs in families and can be inherited, but life factors such as job or relationship loss, grief, the constant grind of racism and discrimination, and feeling like one cannot progress in life all contribute to feelings of depression.” She also confirmed that feelings of hopelessness can add to mental health challenges.

While we may never know what caused this mother to kill her own children, we can see tragedies like the Gardner children, and the suicides of Miss America (2019) Cheslie Kryst (30), and Ian Alexander, Jr. (26) as the result of ignoring Black mental health. The consequences can be devastating — and can also be preventable. 

To seek a culturally competent professional, contact the Black Mental Health Alliance at 410 338-2642.

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...