As a society we are now fairly understanding of postnatal depression, but very few of us are even aware of the existence of postpartum psychosis. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, postpartum psychosis or puerperal psychosis as it is otherwise known, is a severe mental illness which develops in one in 500 new mothers and can result in suicide or them killing their baby.
Postpartum psychosis tends to develop rapidly in the days or weeks after giving birth, with symptoms varying and changing very suddenly. Depression, confusion, hallucinations and delusions are among the most common symptoms and in the presence of these psychiatric help should be sought immediately.
Women are most vulnerable to severe mental illness after giving birth than they are at any other time, yet still postpartum psychosis lies undetected in many cases because doctors and midwives fail to pick up on the symptoms.
Whilst the cause of postpartum psychosis is still largely unknown, experts believe it may be related to the hormonal changes women experience following childbirth, combined with genetics.
Dr Nick Best, a perinatal psychiatrist who specialises in looking after pregnant women and new mothers with mental health conditions, emphasised just how quickly and out of the blue this condition can develop: “A person can move from being relatively amenable and understanding of her situation to floridly unwell, psychotic, delusional and paranoid in the space of just two or three days.”
Whilst some mothers are aware that what they are experiencing is abnormal, they are more often than not too scared to seek help for fear they will have their child taken away from them.
In a bid to spread awareness of this much understood illness, BBC Newsnight spoke to a number of parents who had been affected by this devastating condition.
Dave Emson understands fully just how serious postpartum psychosis can be, after he came home one evening to find that his wife Daksha had stabbed their three month old daughter Freya before setting fire to the baby and herself.
Daksha had left her husband a note in which she spoke of her fears that Freya was prey to “dark forces” and of her need to protect her child at all costs.
Daksha had previously suffered from severe depression for years, but few people knew about her condition as she chose to hide it for fear of what the stigma might do to her career – she was training to become a psychiatry consultant when she died.
The inquiry into Dakshas death led to the NHS developing a new set of guidelines for the treatment of staff with mental health issues, and Dave is now in the midst of writing a book about his experience to help others in the same situation.
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