Postpartum psychosis

Postpartum psychosis is also referred to as postnatal psychosis or more formally, puerperal psychosis. It is a rare condition that affects around 1 or 2 in every thousand mums.  It is however, a very serious mental health condition that requires urgent attention and treatment.

Postpartum psychosis occurs in the first few days or weeks after a baby is born. Whilst we don’t really know what causes the condition, we know that women who have a prior diagnosis of bipolar disorder, or, who have experienced the condition when having children prior, are at greater risk. Some women may however experience the condition with no prior history.

It is very important to seek treatment for postpartum psychosis, as the condition is very serious and places the mother at risk of harming herself, the baby and/or other children – due to the impacts of the condition on her thinking and behaviours.  For this reason the condition must be identified and treatment sought urgently.

Whilst the onset of postpartum psychosis can quite daunting, the good news is that there the good prospects of a full recovery.

Symptoms of postpartum psychosis

Postpartum psychosis leads to marked changes in the mother’s behaviour, and can be highly distressing both for the mother experiencing them – and their families. Often because people are not aware of the disorder or what the symptoms are, when the symptoms occur it can be very confusing and alarming for the mother and family.

Some of the early signs of postpartum psychosis include:

  • finding it hard to sleep
  • feeling full of energy or restless and irritable
  • feeling invincible – strong, powerful and unbeatable
  • having strange and irrational beliefs such as that someone is trying to harm the baby.

These symptoms typically begin to emerge from within 2 days of giving birth to two weeks after birth. In some cases the symptoms can however develop later (up to twelve weeks after the baby’s birth).

Over time, this range of symptoms may then be followed by a combination of manic, psychotic and/or depressive symptoms which can affect her energy, thinking, behaviour and mood. If you are noticing these symptoms and they seem out of character for you or your partner, talk to your health professionals about what you have noticed.

Postpartum psychosis can affect a mother’s thinking and perceptions, resulting in what is know as psychotic symptoms.  There are different types of psychotic symptoms. For example, women may state that they are hearing voices or seeing things that are not there (hallucinations) or start to believe in things that are not based on reality (delusions).

Manic symptoms can include having high levels of energy, racing thoughts and talking quickly. Mania can make It very difficult for a mother to concentrate, and her moods may change in a short space of time.

The depressed symptoms are quite the opposite to mania symptoms. A mother will have little or no energy, and have negative thinking about herself and life in general.  Often people with depression describe feeling helpless, hopeless and worthless, and they may doubt themselves and their ability as a mother. When depression is severe, it can lead a mother to have thoughts about suicide, or harming herself and/or the baby.

I became euphoric immediately after birth…I had never been SO happy, then I became manic, shopping for baby clothes and decorating the nursery, but by day 13 I had an emotional breakdown and became psychotic and suicidal.

Experiencing or seeing these symptoms can be very distressing – both for the mother herself as well as for the partner and other family members.  At times like this it is important to remember that these symptoms are all part of the condition, and these can be treated and managed with the right treatment.

Seeking urgent professional help from a GP, mental health service or hospital emergency department is vital. Delays in identification and treatment can result mean that treatment becomes longer and more complex, and there can be significant safety risks for both the mother and her baby.

Partners and family members are likely to have to take the lead in accessing treatment, as the condition can make it very confusing for the mother – making it difficult for her to see things in perspective. Hence she may not be aware that something is wrong, nor be capable of accessing timely and appropriate help.

In addition to accessing help, partners and family members will also need to continue to play a key role in the mother’s ongoing treatment and recovery.

Recovery

Recovering from the most severe symptoms of postpartum psychosis generally can take from between two weeks to twelve weeks (three months) depending on the individual, severity of your symptoms and your response to treatment. The time taken for a full recovery can be much longer and stem from between six to twelve months.

See also…

Management of postpartum psychosis

Support for mental health conditions