8 Things We Have to Stop Believing About Postpartum Psychosis
I love how much media attention postpartum depression has been getting lately. It’s important for us to keep these conversations going so more women and families understand they’re not alone, and that it’s OK to reach out for help. It’s wonderful to see celebrities like Hayden Panettiere, Drew Barrymore and Alanis Morissette opening up about their stories — when people we admire and assume have it all together show us their struggles, we pay attention.
But we also need to start talking about postpartum psychosis (PPP). I was diagnosed with PPP a month after my first child was born, and suffered from antenatal psychosis (psychosis during pregnancy) during my second pregnancy. Both times I had been avoiding my medication for bipolar disorder because I didn’t want to expose the baby to potential risks.
I want to share what I’ve learned. Maybe then, more people will understand postpartum psychosis the way they’re beginning to understand postpartum depression, and the women and families who experience it will feel just as supported.
Here are some things we need to stop believing about PPP:
1. Women who experience PPP are monsters.
Yes, it’s true that untreated PPP can lead to infanticide. But in these cases, the mother was sick and needed treatment. The more we’re able to identify the symptoms, and the sooner a new mother is able to get treatment, the chances of her actually harming her baby can be avoided all together. Most women who experience postpartum psychosis do not harm themselves or anyone else.
2. It’s hard to hide the early symptoms.
Having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years before I had my first child, I knew what the beginning of a manic episode felt like. I was euphoric, energized despite the severe lack of sleep and highly social, planning playdates when I should have been resting instead. I hid my initial symptoms for fear of having my son taken from me. I was terrified of failing as a mom.
3. There’s nothing family can do.
In my experience, family members are the first ones to notice something’s wrong. If it weren’t for my husband, who knows what could have happened. The morning my husband called 9-1-1 to have me hospitalized, I woke at 5 a.m. after barely sleeping the night before due to the baby’s feeding schedule and my extreme mania. I was in the kitchen rearranging the items in our cabinets. My speech was pressured (I had so many things to tell my husband, but the words wouldn’t come out fast enough), and what I was able to verbalize wasn’t making any sense. He recognized these symptoms from my two previous manic episodes years before, combined with how little sleep I was getting, and immediately called 9-1-1.
4. A woman will always know when she needs help.
Sometimes a woman experiencing PPP can’t see how badly she needs help. Seeking help for psychosis symptoms is very different than seeking help for postpartum depression. In my experience, it’s the spouse/partner or family member who initiates treatment through hospitalization. After the birth of my first and during my second pregnancy, I became so ill I couldn’t recognize how far gone I was. It was a gradual process, but once I reached a certain level of mania, the chaos in my brain took over and catapulted me into psychosis. It was up to those around me to find a way to bring me back. Involuntary commitment was what I needed both times.
5. It’s an easy thing to talk about.
Some women have thoughts of harming their children, and some of them act on those violent thoughts. Stories like the one of Andrea Yates might make women afraid of reaching out for help for fear of being looked down upon by friends or family members. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have those intrusive thoughts, but it was still incredibly difficult for me to admit I needed help.
6. It’s not preventable.
PPP can be prevented. Although rare, there are predicting factors. And while there are underlying conditions which can predispose a woman to developing postpartum psychosis, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder being a huge factor, any pregnant woman is potentially at risk. This is why we need to raise awareness around PPP the same way we’re raising awareness around postpartum depression.
7. For women experiencing PPP — or any other mental health issue — breastfeeding is the only way to feed a newborn.
Breastfeeding isn’t the only way to feed a newborn. I put tremendous pressure on myself to breastfeed my first child. “Breast is best” was everywhere I turned during my pregnancy, and I correlated my ability to feed my child from my body with how successful I was as a new mom. Not only was this wrong, it was incredibly unhealthy. With my second child, we planned to bottle-fed with formula from the start, which led to a much more enjoyable postpartum period.
8. Moms who experience PPP aren’t good moms.
If I had known experiencing this illness was not my fault, and that there were other moms out there who had to be hospitalized following the births of their babies, it would have been a little easier. This is why I share my story. If even just one person finds this and gets help sooner rather than later, it’s all worth it.
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