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Postpartum Psychosis – the illness you’ve probably never heard of

In honour of Time to Talk Day today, we wanted to take a look at one of the lesser-known mental health problems that specifically affects women

Written by High Life North
Published 05.02.2021

By Lucy Nichols

Talking about any illness, but particularly those lesser-known to us, helps us raise awareness of symptoms, potential treatments and support systems so that if you, a friend or a loved one were to experience them you would know that there was help – and hope – to get you through.

With that in mind, we chatted to the team at Action on Postpartum Psychosis – the UK’s only charity dedicated to supporting women with postpartum psychosis – to open up a conversation about an illness that affects 1,400 mothers in the UK every year.

 

Firstly, what is postpartum psychosis?

These days, there is certainly more awareness of postnatal depression (PND), but not as many people have heard of postpartum psychosis – an illness that can occur within days or even hours of giving birth.

You may have seen some on-screen portrayals of the illness if you’re a soap fan. EastEnders fans, for example, will remember the scenes of Stacey’s struggles with postpartum psychosis following the birth of her little boy. And, more recently, Hollyoaks has worked on a postpartum psychosis storyline featuring the character Liberty. Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP) worked closely with the programme teams to ensure an accurate portrayal, using TV as an impactful medium from which to raise awareness.

But to give you a clearer picture, APP has provided a snapshot of PP symptoms to help you understand what to look out for.

Symptoms:

  • Rapid changes in mood, extreme elation, anxiety or depression
  • Unusual beliefs
  • Seeing things or hearing things that are not there (hallucinations)
  • Extreme confusion
  • Unable or not needing to sleep

The symptoms are similar to those seen in bipolar disorder, and it can be difficult for the person experiencing them to acknowledge that there is something wrong. Often, it is a family member or friend who will notice that behaviour is out of the ordinary.

 

Dr Jess Heron

Dr Jess Heron, CEO, Action on Postpartum Psychosis said: ‘PP can often be confused with postnatal depression (PND). There are similarities and PND can often follow episodes of PP, however, it’s important to know the difference because the required treatment and support aren’t the same.

‘For example, whereas some episodes of PND may be treated with antidepressants, PP often needs antipsychotics and mood stabilisers to help women begin to recover. For some women with PP, antidepressants may trigger the worsening of the illness or rapid cycling between mood states. Additionally, PP almost always requires appropriate inpatient treatment in a Mother and Baby Unit. Here, health professionals are specially trained in treating perinatal mental health problems, supporting breastfeeding, bonding and the development of parenting skills. It’s traumatic for new mums if they have to be separated from their baby at this critical time and impacts greatly on a woman’s experience of care and their confidence in parenting.’

 

My story: Laura Dockrill

One woman who has spoken out extensively about her experience of PP is poet and author, Laura Dockrill. Laura and her husband, musician Hugo White, have both recently been announced as ambassadors for APP to help raise further awareness of the illness.

‘Experiencing postpartum psychosis was bewildering and frightening,’ Laura said. ‘We had no idea what was happening and the symptoms left me feeling confused, afraid and, at times, suicidal.

‘Jess and the team at APP reached out to me while I was in recovery, bringing with them a boatload of love, warmth and hope, sharing information, and introducing me to an amazing network of women that I have been engaged with ever since. 

‘I hope I can now help to reach others who may be struggling because, as I now know, there is always hope and light – we just need to show people how and where to find it.’

The point Laura makes about hope and light is paramount. PP might be a severe mental illness, but it is treatable and has an excellent prognosis. However, as with Laura who experienced no prior mental health problems, PP can happen to anyone, regardless of medical history or social background. This is why raising awareness among the general population is so key.

My story: Hannah Bissett

Another woman who experienced PP with no prior mental health conditions is Hannah Bissett, who works for APP as a National Coordinator. Hannah said: ‘My experience of postpartum psychosis was completely out of the blue. I’d had a really normal pregnancy and no prior mental health problems. Because of that, when things started to go wrong, I had no idea what was happening to me.

‘I had a traumatic birth and emergency c-section and then, just days after giving birth, I noticed I wasn’t sleeping properly, I was really anxious and became quite obsessional and paranoid. At first, the doctor suggested I had postnatal depression and sent me home with antidepressants – but things just got worse. And, of course, PP doesn’t respond to antidepressants as PND might. Eventually, after my behaviour became really erratic and my husband found me pacing the house at night talking to myself, I was eventually sectioned.

‘However, on a general psychiatric ward, things just got worse and worse and I kind of burned out and became almost catatonic. Finally, I was given a place on a Mother and Baby Unit and, with my little boy by my side, I began to recover – slowly but surely. I’ve since had another child and I was lucky not to experience another episode of PP. I think it’s so important to know how to quickly recognise the signs, where to turn for help and to know that there is always hope. But you need to get the right treatment as quickly as possible.’

How to help

Because PP is so severe, services must respond quickly and appropriately, and PP must be considered a psychiatric emergency. The majority of women are substantially recovered within a few months, but full recovery and coming to terms with the illness can take longer.

Dr Jess Heron added: ‘It’s vital that we raise awareness and campaign to ensure that Mother and Baby Unit beds are available for all who need them, so women are not separated from their new-borns and are treated quickly and supportively. With a broader understanding of the illness, among both the public and the health sector, the experience of seeking help and recovering from PP can be dramatically different, improving outcomes for women and families.’

For more information about postpartum psychosis, to find out where to get support and to access APP’s peer support community, visit www.app-network.org 

Laura Dockrill has written a memoir about her experiences with PP called “What Have I Done?” Published by Square Peg. It is available now in all good bookstores.

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