One fifth of new mothers suffer from depression, anxiety or psychosis in the year after giving birth.
Postpartum psychosis is a serious condition that affects one or two new mothers out of every thousand.
It usually begins in the days or weeks following birth, although onset can be delayed.
Potential symptoms include hallucinations or delusional feelings, mania, depression, and loss of inhibitions. Symptoms can change rapidly, however, and vary between sufferers.
Postpartum psychosis requires immediate medical attention and should be treated as an emergency.
If left untreated, the condition can quickly become more serious, causing the mother or baby to come to harm.
Most women respond quickly to treatment, and make a full recovery.
Catherine Carver shared the story of her experience of postpartum psychosis on Mosaic Science, detailing her treatment and how the illness affected her life.
One Mama’s Story
Catherine Carver’s daughter, Beatrix, was born by caesarean section in January 2016. Unable to have immediate skin-to-skin with her newborn, due to side effects of the surgery, Carver noticed she was experiencing a reaction to the caesarean. Her first hours as a mother were not what she had expected. She writes:
“I feel the fear of stigma keenly as I write this, afraid of how you’ll judge me as a mother and as a person. And for months, I too thought my symptoms were a normal part of motherhood and would resolve. This was made easier to believe because the symptoms of postpartum psychosis can wax and wane, so sometimes I didn’t feel so bad. Yet at the peak of my disease a nurse told me I was one of the sickest women she’d seen enter the ward”.
Carver’s symptoms started just days after the birth, but she wasn’t diagnosed until her baby was five months old. She explains:
“In those first few days I began to develop beliefs that I can now see as the first daggers of disease stabbing my mind. I thought all the nurses were talking about me, and had an ever-growing suspicion that my baby had been swapped. “She looks just like your husband,” the nurses said, and each time they did I was more convinced that she had been swapped and that they were part of a conspiracy trying to fool me”.
As her paranoia grew, Carver felt unable to trust anyone with her feelings. Even her husband wasn’t aware of how bad things were for her, although, of course, he could tell something wasn’t right. At her husband’s suggestion, Carver went to see her GP, but she left the appointment feeling that the GP might also be part of the conspiracy. She writes:
“Without the help I needed, over the following weeks my mind shattered into a thousand jagged pieces. I became manic.… Five months after my baby was born things had reached the point where I was terrified of leaving the house for fear of murderous social workers. I had a new health visitor, who had picked up that something was amiss and had begun visiting every two weeks. When she came round one day to find me speaking rapidly and unable to stop pacing, she put the wheels in motion to get me help urgently”.
Carver was voluntarily admitted to the mother and baby psychiatric unit (MBU) at St John’s Hospital in Scotland.
Worried that the unit might be part of the conspiracy, Carver agreed to be admitted only after some persuasion from her husband and mother.
Experiencing Post-partum Psychosis
At this point, Carver wasn’t convinced she was ill. She describes the symptoms of postpartum psychosis:
“My mind was like a fantastical game of pinball, the steel balls of my thoughts zig-zagging at a million miles an hour around my energised grey matter: “Red car. Gryffindor. Harry Potter. Harry Styles. Ooh, hair!” Each thought lit up like Vegas but burned out quickly, serving only as a springboard to the next – an experience that psychiatrists call a “flight of ideas”. It was exhilarating to think so quickly, faster than I had ever thought before, but there were too many thoughts for one mind to think. I tried explaining this, using an octopus-based analogy, to a psychiatric nurse, who said in a kind voice, the sort you might use when speaking to a small child or a golden retriever, that she didn’t follow. I didn’t expect her to follow. She was like a Peugeot 106 to my Formula 1 car, a three-legged donkey to my thoroughbred, the Circle Line to my bullet train – how could she possibly keep up with me?”
Speaking of her time in the unit, she says:
“ … As the antipsychotic medication helped to heal my beleaguered brain, … I came to see the MBU as a place of safety. It offered baby massage sessions, weaning classes and splash play activities, all of which enabled me to be the mother I wanted to be. As it was a six-bed unit, there was also the opportunity to meet other mothers who were going through the same thing and discuss the impacts of our various treatments as well as the trials and tribulations of motherhood. In short, it was a place that helped me to re-grow the confidence that my disease had decimated, making me feel positive about our ability to thrive together at home.”
When she was feeling better, Carver began to question why this had happened to her. She had never suffered from mental illness before and struggled to understand why she had experienced postpartum psychosis. In at attempt to find answers, she reached out to Jessica Heron, director of Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP), a charity that provides support to women with postnatal psychosis and their families. Heron explained:
“The best guess at the moment is that biological and hormonal factors are involved. There’s been some studies into the most likely candidates and they haven’t found anything consistent. We do know it runs in families more often than you’d expect. We know there’s a strong link with bipolar disorder. So some of the risk factors that have been found in bipolar, like sleep disruption, [might be implicated].”
Carver was released from the MBU after six weeks, thanks to the treatment she received at the hospital. Like many sufferers of postpartum psychosis, Carver was diagnosed with postpartum depression again, a few months later, and returned to the MBU for treatment. After being admitted to the unit for a third time, Carver found that her confidence had been knocked. Writing about her experience has been a way of her restoring her confidence as well as promoting awareness of the condition. She explains:
“I’ve always been a confident person but the experiences of the last year have dented that. Pre-psychosis me was also adept at shouting about things in the world she felt strongly about. Yet post-psychosis me seemed to have lost her voice – I found it hard to tell even my nearest and dearest what had happened. However, I also had a gnawing need to act. I felt that part of the reason there were only 17 MBUs in the UK was that women found it hard to shout about this compared with less stigmatised diseases…. I wanted to shout about maternal mental health, and postpartum psychosis in particular.
“It’s not a completed journey, there are still ups and downs, but storytelling continues to help me process and come to terms with what was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life. Hopefully by telling my story I can give a voice to the women who are now struggling or have struggled with postpartum psychosis and other maternal mental health problems. Speak to your friends about it, share it and shout about it with me – together we can break the stigma.”
You can find Catherine Carver’s full article and a more detailed description of her experiences here.