Mentally unwell moms who kill their children represent a tiny minority. Yet many news reports provide this one-sided view of postpartum psychosis and its worst effects. While postpartum psychosis is terrifying and potentially dangerous for the person and loved ones, it’s a condition that’s rarely deadly.
This is a mental illness we need to understand better. Expecting mothers, other parents, friends and family members should recognise the signs and know what to do when someone’s in trouble.
In this article, we’re supplying you with all of the vital info. What causes postpartum psychosis? Can it be prevented? How’s it treated? Here’s everything you should know.
What Is Postpartum Psychosis?
Postpartum psychosis is a rare but serious mental disorder connected to childbirth. Approximately one or two of 1000 new mothers get impacted by it. The affected person will suffer from disruptive and serious changes to their mood and behaviour. They’ll also regularly experience psychosis in the form of hallucinations and delusions.
Due to its severity and possible dangers, mental health professionals see postpartum psychosis as an emergency.
Postpartum psychosis needs early intervention. While recovery is possible, the mother and baby grow more vulnerable the longer she’s untreated. And in severe cases, the mother might end her own life, hurt her child, or worse.
Do I Have Postpartum Psychosis?
The word “psychosis” means to lose touch with reality. If someone has postpartum psychosis, they might believe their mood, beliefs or behaviours are grounded in real life. The complexities of the illness might cause them to refuse treatment out of fear or paranoia.
Moreover, their loved ones might miss the early signs. Early psychosis symptoms look like baby blues. It’s also inconsistent and hard to keep track of. The person might seem completely fine one minute and behave strangely suddenly.
Postpartum psychosis has many symptoms. But hallucinations or delusions are the most common. Both these symptoms disturb one’s sense of reality and view of the world. They might see things that aren’t there or believe untrue things.
A hallucination is when the brain receives sensory inputs that aren’t real. People might hear, see, and feel things that don’t correspond with the real world.
Rarely are the effects of hallucinations so powerful that death or serious injury occurs. But it happens. It’s hard to forget the story of Andrea Yates, a Texan woman who tragically drowned her children after hearing voices.
Delusions are firmly held false beliefs. Even with evidence, these beliefs are often too strong to change.
The mother might think that loved ones want to hurt her baby or that she’s not a mother when she is.
Other symptoms might include the following.
- Extreme irritability and agitation
- A complete inability to look after their child
- Mania, with increased activity, overtalking or overthinking, euphoria
- Low moods, with depression, tearfulness, catatonia, decreased appetite
- Extreme mood swings, from mania to depression
- Behaving completely out of character
- Restlessness, suspicious or fearful
- Confused, disordered or disordered thinking and behaving
When Does Post Partum Psychosis Occur?
Symptoms might appear hours after childbirth or within a week or two. You can also show signs of postpartum psychosis months later.
While there’s no exact timeline for getting ill, the timing between identification, diagnosis and treatment must be quick before it escalates.
Am I At Risk for Postpartum Psychosis?
Postpartum psychosis, caused by a combination of factors, can affect anyone. But some people are more at risk than others. Things like a prior mental health history or existing medical conditions can trigger an episode.
Postpartum Psychosis in the Family
If close relatives had PPP, you could too. There’s also a high chance you’ll experience postpartum psychosis if you’ve had it before.
Existing Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder
Mental illnesses like schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, or bipolar disorder don’t cause postpartum psychosis, but doctors say there’s a strong link. In other words, you’re more likely to fall ill with postpartum psychosis if you have the above than if you don’t.
That doesn’t mean you’ll get sick automatically but familiarise the symptoms if you have a baby.
While PPP is more prevalent in those who’ve been mentally unwell, people without mental health problems aren’t immune.
General Medical Conditions
Other than psychological factors, certain medical conditions can also trigger psychotic episodes.
A range of autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, electrolyte imbalances, strokes, and thyroid disorders can set off postpartum psychosis.
What Are the Most Common Treatments For Postpartum Psychosis?
Patients aren’t likely to seek psychological help because they might not know their mental health is impacted. Therefore, it’s usually the case that they’re admitted to a psychiatric unit by family.
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, patients may rely on medications and therapy for recovery. Typically, they’re used together.
Antipsychotic drugs treat mania, hallucinations and delusions.
Mood stabilisers, like lithium, work to stabilise moods and reduce future mood swings and manic and depressive symptoms.
Antidepressants treat the depressive symptoms of postpartum psychosis by increasing serotonin in the brain.
Doctors reserve electroconvulsive therapy for severe cases of PPP if other medications don’t work. Performed under general anaesthesia, small electric currents pass through the brain to prompt a small seizure. Doctors rely on ECT because it can dissolve mental health conditions by changing brain chemistry.
Despite being highly effective, people question the risks. Which is fair enough. It might be safe now, but early versions of ECT used higher doses of electricity without anaesthesia. This meant that people were conscious throughout the procedure.
Now administered using low levels of electricity and anaesthesia in a controlled setting, the procedure has more benefits than risks. It might also be the better option for nursing mothers as many medications pass into breast milk.
Your doctor will discuss all possible treatment options and their risks to decide which is most suitable and effective for you.
Cognitive Behavioural therapy modifies how you think and behave.
Effective for treating postpartum depression, CBT can also help with postpartum psychosis.
Even after you’re better, scheduling regular therapy is good for you. Talking through your diagnosis and feelings can help you accept what’s happened and not blame yourself.
Additionally, you’ll learn techniques to reduce future episodes and detect early warning signs.
Will I Make a Full Recovery?
The good news is that you can expect to recover. But the recovery period can be long, complex and involve extended hospital stays. You can also get sick again.
Postpartum psychosis can greatly impact who you are, but you can still live a normal-functioning life. Surrounded by a tight-knit support system and a team of professionals, you can be healthy, have kids, and hold a career.
It’s common for women to have negative emotions post-psychosis. As she comes to terms with what happened or the bonding she missed out on with her child while ill, she might feel guilty, ashamed, anxious or depressed. Talking to others with similar experiences and feelings can help women overcome this.
Can I Still Have Children if I’m High Risk for Postpartum Psychosis?
The risks of postpartum psychosis becoming grave are small. Many affected mothers go on to have more children, and those high-risk might be okay after childbirth.
That said, if you meet the criteria, take these precautions.
1. Seek Out Therapy
Enter into psychiatric care during your pregnancy. Compile a treatment plan with your perinatal therapist to reduce your risk of becoming ill.
2. Consult Your Therapist
If you’re being treated for mental health issues, be transparent with your psychologist and psychiatrist about your plans to fall pregnant. Don’t make sudden changes, like stopping your medication, without their consent.
3. Have a Care Plan
Tell loved ones how to care for you during pregnancy and after delivery. Leave detailed instructions on what to do if you display signs of postpartum psychosis. Remember, they’ll have to make decisions for you since a symptom of the illness is not knowing you’re sick.
Provide loved ones with a list of symptoms they can put on the fridge. Family members can ensure you’re quickly treated if they know the signs.
How to Care For Loved Ones With Post Partum Psychosis
You might feel helpless or scared for a sick family member. And while you can’t make them better, there are ways you can help. Stop things from escalating in the following ways.
1. Don’t Judge or Argue
People going through psychosis can’t differentiate between what’s real and not. The situation can be frustrating for those sound of mind, especially if you can show what they feel, think or believe is wrong.
Although you might want to convince a person to see things “the right way,” trying to might make things worse.
2. Learn About Postpartum Psychosis
Is postpartum real or imaginary? Loved ones might doubt its existence if they don’t know anything about it. And if you don’t understand their ailment, you might struggle to garner sympathy or respond badly.
Reading up on the illness will teach you more about what a spouse, parent, partner or family member is going through, thereby providing them with much-need support.
3. Control Your Temper
Paranoia and anxiety might be expressed as anger, irritability or agitation. It’s important not to react if it’s aimed at you. Unintentionally, your adverse reaction might confirm their unfounded beliefs.
Instead, create a safe space for the individual by responding calmly.
4. Help With Chores and Babysit
The smallest chores might be impossible for mothers battling postpartum psychosis. Cooking, cleaning, and helping around the house and babysitting can help as they recover mentally.
5. Keep an Eye on Them and Their Baby
Suicidal or homicidal ideations aren’t common in suffering mothers but can happen in the worst-case scenarios.
If you think the mother might harm herself or shows intent to harm her child, it’s important that she’s not left on her own.
6. Get Help
Seek out urgent medical care if a loved one is showing all of the signs, or contact NHS for emergencies.
Baby Blues, Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Psychosis: What’s the Difference?
80% of women will experience the baby blues, while 10% of parents can suffer from postpartum depression symptoms. On the other hand, one or two in 1000 women get affected by psychosis.
The difference between them is severity and frequency. More people get the baby blues. They’ll experience mild symptoms. They will recover naturally within days. Postnatal depression is less common and more serious, and recovery requires professional treatment. Postpartum psychosis is extremely rare. It’s also the most serious psychiatric disorder linked to childbirth. Although infrequently lethal, a mother is a risk to herself and her baby. Therefore, treatment is crucial and involves hospital care.
The Way Forward for Postpartum Psychosis
What we know about postpartum psychosis relates to crime stories: mothers that murder their children. Displayed like this, it’s no wonder the disease is stigmatised and vilified.
The conversation surrounding mental health and childbirth has started, but we need to do more to help those sick with postpartum psychosis.
Postpartum psychosis is temporary and treatable, but those with it don’t know their ill. Those who love them might not recognise the symptoms or think it’s something else. Therefore, we need to spread awareness about postpartum psychosis.
You can’t avoid postpartum psychosis, but you can reduce your risks, get help and recover. Additionally, getting ill isn’t a prison sentence; you can go on to live a normal life.