Postpartum Psychosis

Although psychologists originally recognized this postpartum mood disorder in 1850, postpartum psychosis is not widely known today. Interestingly, studies on the rates of the disorder have shown that the number of women experiencing postpartum psychosis haven’t changed since the mid 1800s. However, postpartum psychosis is a very serious mental condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Postpartum Depression and Pyschosis
While it often gets lumped into the same category as postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis is not the same disorder. Usually described as a period when a woman loses touch with reality, the disorder occurs in women who have recently given birth. Postpartum psychosis is the most extreme form of postpartum mood disorders but it is also one of the rarest. It affects between one and two women per 1,000 women who have given birth.

Because of the bizarre and disturbing thoughts women with the disorder experience, many are afraid to speak to their doctor about their psychosis despite the fact that they are aware something is wrong. In fact, less than 20% of women actually seek help for their disorder. Often, their partner or another family is the one responsible for bringing the issue up with the woman’s doctor.

Unfortunately, though, postpartum psychosis is often misdiagnosed or thought to be postpartum depression, thereby preventing a woman from receiving the appropriate medical attention that she needs.

Women who do receive proper treatment often respond well but usually experience postpartum depression before completely recovering. However, without treatment, the psychosis can lead to tragic consequences. Postpartum psychosis has a 5% suicide rate and a 4% infanticide rate.

Postpartum Psychosis Signs
Women who have postpartum psychosis usually develop symptoms within the first two to three weeks after delivery although symptoms can occur at any point within the first three months after giving birth. Postpartum psychosis symptoms usually appear quite suddenly; in 80% of cases, the psychosis occurs three to 14 days after a symptom-free period.

Signs of postpartum psychosis include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Illogical thoughts
  • Insomnia
  • Refusing to eat
  • Extreme feelings of anxiety and agitation
  • Periods of delirium or mania
  • Suicidal or homicidal thoughts

At Risk
Women with a personal or familial history of psychosis, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia have an increased risk of developing postpartum psychosis. If you have had a past incident of postpartum psychosis, you are between 20% and 50% more likely to experience the psychosis again in a future pregnancy.

Causes of Postpartum Psychosis
As with other postpartum mood disorders, experts aren’t exactly sure why it happens. However, many believe that the significant drop in your hormones following the birth of your child is the main cause for postpartum psychosis.

Other possible reasons or contributing factors to the psychosis include a lack of social and emotional support; a low sense of self-esteem due to a woman’s postpartum appearance; feeling inadequate as a mother; feeling isolated and alone; having financial problems; and undergoing a major life change such as moving or starting a new job.

Treating Postpartum Psychosis
Postpartum psychosis is considered to be a mental health emergency and requires immediate attention. Women who suffer from the psychosis are not always able or willing to speak with someone about their disorder. Therefore, it is sometimes necessary that their partner or another family member help them get the medical attention they need.

This postpartum mood disorder is usually treated with medications, often anti-psychotic drugs and sometimes anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety drugs. If a woman is thought to pose a threat to herself or others, there is a good chance that she will be hospitalized for a short time. Psychological counseling and support group therapy have also been found to be especially beneficial for women suffering from postpartum psychosis.

Although many women will experience postpartum depression as they receive treatment, with proper care, most women are able to recover from postpartum psychosis.