Postpartum psychosis is a rare mental illness caused by extreme biochemical imbalance following childbirth. One or two in a thousand women will develop postpartum psychosis in the U.S. alone. In 2010, there were approximately 4 million births (Center for Disease Control 2012), meaning that 4,000 to 8,000 women experience postpartum psychosis each year. Of the women who develop a postpartum psychosis, there is a 5% infanticide or suicide rate associated with the illness (Postpartum Support International 2010).
One of the biggest risk factors is previously diagnosed bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Other risk factors include:
- Family history of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
- Previous experience with postpartum depression or psychosis
Signs and Symptoms
Those with postpartum psychosis experience a break from reality, and immediate treatment is required.
Symptoms of postpartum psychosis are consistent with those of bipolar I psychotic episode, but have some specific correlations to motherhood. Symptoms can include:
- Rapid mood swings
- Periods of delirium or mania
- Thoughts of harming the baby or oneself
- Irrational feelings of guilt
- Refusing to eat
- Thought insertion (the notion that other beings or forces can put thoughts or ideas into one’s mind)
- Decreased need for or inability to sleep
- Reluctance to tell anyone about the symptoms
Many survivors of postpartum psychosis never have violent delusions. Delusions take many forms, and not all of them are destructive (Postpartum Support International 2010). Most women who experience postpartum psychosis do not harm themselves or anyone else.
Postpartum psychosis is considered to be a mental health emergency. Although temporary and treatable, women must receive immediate help. As a result of the break with reality, those with postpartum psychosis must be monitored and treated by a trained healthcare professional. After initial treatment, women may move into severe depression, which requires ongoing help and follow up.
Doctors typically treat postpartum psychosis with medications such as anti-psychotic drugs, anti-depressants, and/or anti-anxiety drugs. If a woman poses a threat to herself or her baby, she may be hospitalized for a short time. Many also benefit from counseling and support groups (Pregnancy Info 2012).
If you feel you or someone you know may be suffering from this illness, know that it is not your fault, and you are not to blame. Call your doctor right away to get the help you need.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Births and Natality.” 14 September 2012.
Postpartum Support International. “Postpartum Psychosis.” 2010.
Pregnancy Info. “Postpartum Psychosis.” 2012.