Postpartum psychosis: mental illness after childbirth should not be taboo

Credits: By _Naomi_, November 1, 2012

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Think of any advert you have seen recently portraying a new mum and her baby. I’m guessing the room in the background will be white with gleaming surfaces, a distinct lack of sicky muslins or half-drunk cups of tea, and most definitely mum will be back in her pre-pregnancy jeans. Mum and baby will smile and cuddle and laugh. I guess we all know that life won’t really look like an advert but a subtle expectation pervades; motherhood will make you rapturously happy.

Three days after my baby daughter was born, I was indeed rapturously happy. Surrounded by flowers, a swaddled bundle in my arms, I felt incredible. In fact, I was so happy and overwhelmed with love that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop my mind and wrote endless notes about my gorgeous daughter and her special place in the world. Seven days later I would be admitted to a psychiatric ward, convinced that I had a mission from God to bring about the end of the world.

I was suffering from postpartum psychosis

I was suffering from postpartum psychosis (also known as puerperal psychosis). Although 1-2 in 1000 women experience this condition after childbirth, I had never heard of it and neither had my husband or family. You won’t find it mentioned in antenatal classes, or in baby books, or even in leaflets about postnatal depression – save perhaps a scant sentence. But when my husband googled it to find out more, he came across horror stories of child murder and suicide.

Stigma hits both ways for postpartum psychosis. Firstly, the reality of this illness is hidden from view in pregnancy. Midwives are taught very little about it and it just feels too terrible to mention to expectant mothers that they might become seriously ill. So we don’t talk about the early warning signs: sleeplessness, feeling very high and elated, or experiencing dramatic mood swings, talking or writing a lot, or developing unusual beliefs. And then the signs are missed and tragedies happen. Secondly, women with postpartum psychosis are portrayed as monsters on the internet with stories focusing on every salacious detail of the tragic death of a mother and child.

The reality is that many women, like me, go on to make a full recovery.

Even today, seven years from my episode of postpartum psychosis, it is difficult to find a media story focusing on the remarkable recovery that most women and families make. BBC Newsnight recently featured a 15-minute film on the condition, yet each story featured risk to a baby’s safety. The reality is that many women, like me, go on to make a full recovery.

Nowadays, as a mental health educator, I have the chance to tell my story to medical students and health professionals who will work with new mothers in the future. I hope that my message will be clear: severe mental illness after childbirth should not be a taboo. We need to talk about it so that we can recognise, treat quickly and prevent tragedy

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