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Postpartum psychosis is not often discussed - how much do you know about the condition?
Unlike postpartum depression, or prenatal depression, postpartum psychosis is a lot less well-known – but it occurs in around one in 1,000 birth, and it’s a terrifying mix of depression, mania and psychosis.
Back in 2016, the condition was discussed in an EastEnders storyline that saw Stacey Slater experience the condition following the birth of her baby at Christmas.
And documentary-maker Louis Theroux also shone a light on the topic, with the release of his latest programme, Mothers on the Edge. In the show, Louis met with three women who were suffering from severe mental health problems, including postpartum psychosis.
Yet despite the work raising awareness, the topic is still one that appears to be discussed less than other maternal mental health issues.
The stigma surrounding postpartum psychosis
Rachel Boyd, Information Manager at Mind, one of the charities who collaborated with EastEnders for Stacey’s storyline, says there’s still a stigma around the condition.
‘For new mums especially, there’s a lot of stigma about talking about depression, psychosis or any kind of struggle if that’s maybe affecting your bond with your baby or how you feel about your baby,’ Rachel said.
‘It comes a lot from the pressure that new mums and new parents are under, to seem like everything is going well and they’re really happy. It can be a really happy time but it’s also a really stressful time.
‘People with postpartum psychosis are absolutely not a danger to their babies, most of them with the right kind of support can recover fully and have a full and happy life and build those bonds with their baby,’ Rachel says.
What is postpartum psychosis?
Postpartum psychosis is a mental health condition that can affect women after birth.
It affects an estimated one-to-two women in every thousand. Although women who have experienced mental health problems themselves or have family members who have (like Stacey) are more prone to experience symptoms, it can also affect women with no previous mental health issues.
Postpartum psychosis symptoms can include:
- high mood
- delusions or hallucinations
- mood swings
Postpartum psychosis symptoms can be tricky to spot initially, especially in the weeks after birth which can be an emotional roller-coaster for any mum.
‘What can often make it complicated is that it’s a period of time when people have quite extreme emotions, and things can be really stressful, and also lack of sleep can also lead to psychotic episodes and lots of new parents find it hard to sleep,’ Mind’s expert Rachel says.
What’s the difference between postpartum psychosis and postnatal depression?
Postpartum psychosis is often confused with postnatal depression and Rachel says there can be similarities between the two as postpartum psychosis also involves depression, and struggling to find a bond with your child.
The main distinction is the psychotic symptoms, like hearing voices and seeing things that aren’t there.
What to do if you suspect postpartum psychosis
If you’re a mum, the first step is talking about what you’re feeling with a family member, friend, your GP or another health professional.
‘New mums often feel under so much pressure that they have to be happy, they have to coping, it can look like everyone else is fine, even if they’re also struggling. So actually even just letting someone know how you’re feeling is such an important first step, because it can help you feel you’re not on your own’, Rachel advises.
If you, or someone close to you is displaying symptoms of postpartum psychosis, contact your local GP and ask to see someone with specific mental health experience – as they will be in a better place to spot the symptoms early on.
What it is really like to live with postpartum psychosis
To understand what it’s really like to live with postpartum psychosis, we spoke to Zara, 31, who was diagnosed after the birth of her second child.
‘I started to experience symptoms around a week after the birth. Initially after becoming a mum for the second time I felt elated, so hyper and happy, like I could take on the world but then became unable to function. I was very severely depressed and started hallucinating, which involved smelling, hearing and seeing things that weren’t there.
‘I experienced postnatal depression after my first pregnancy, but this was different. At first my GP prescribed only antidepressants, putting it down to anxiety and hormones.
‘It was after a few months when I finally got to see a psychiatrist that he recognised that I had postpartum psychosis. He prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics. It took three months for me to get properly diagnosed with postpartum psychosis, after the health visitor pushed for my appointment to be brought forward.
‘Unlike with postnatal depression, I had severe hallucinations, delusions and mood changes. I went from manic to a severe withdrawn depressed state that I’ve never experienced before. It also lasted much longer than postnatal depression.
‘The illness had a great impact on my family, they were at a loss of “what to do with me”. My partner’s mother thought I was being ridiculous and my partner was very worried and took on a lot.
‘My daughter was three at the time and I didn’t really engage with her like I used to, so that had an impact on her too. I couldn’t engage with my family and didn’t go outside for months. My partner tried to coax me out into the back garden and I went out for a second and came back in.
‘I managed to go to the park a few weeks after birth and spent a few minutes there and ran back home. I couldn’t even face going to baby clinic. With the depression I had after my daughter, I did new mum things like baby clinic, walks with her out in the pram. But with postpartum psychosis, I was afraid of everything for my son, didn’t trust anyone and totally isolated myself from everyone and everything.
‘My postpartum psychosis lasted longer than usual – around 18 months – and I don’t have many memories of my boy as a little baby, the illness robbed me of that. I did manage to feed, change him and hold him but it felt so alien.
‘I think if GPs had better training maybe and recognised what was happening, I would have been able to get seen quicker. I didn’t know about postpartum psychosis before having my children and neither did my family and as your the one in that state, you don’t really understand what’s going on, so more awareness is going to be a big help.’