It’s time to shine a light on this serious mental illness, to shed the stigma, and ensure that no one has to struggle with postpartum psychosis alone
In 2018, after the birth of my son, I experienced a severe and debilitating mental illness called postpartum psychosis, PP for short – and don’t worry, I’d never heard of it either until it tried to destroy my life. Becoming an ambassador for the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP), alongside my husband, Hugo, isn’t something I’d ever thought would happen. Because, in all honesty, I didn’t think I’d make it out alive.
I had never experienced mental illness before PP picked my family up like a snow globe, and shook our world into oblivion. When PP hits you out of the blue, it’s frightening – because you don’t know what’s going on, or where to turn. Within days, my brain seemed to turn against me. My instinct vanished. I knew I had to recover, because I had a newborn to take care of that really needed me… But in the same breath: I had a newborn to take care of that really needed me.
The main reason my family and I were so scared and shocked was because we were totally in the dark – I didn’t even know PP existed, how long it would last, or how much of the old me we could salvage. Which is why it’s so important that APP has been raising awareness, and campaigning for more services.
Psychosis is probably one of the most misunderstood and stigmatised of all mental health problems, and if you blend that with the expectations of being a new parent, sprinkle on the shame and unhelpful assumptions of “Wow you’ve just had a baby – this is supposed to be the best time of your life,” and you can start to see the scale of the challenge.
So I want to do my bit to smash the stigma. Because if anyone else finds themselves in the same situation as I did in 2018 – wondering what the hell was going on with my chaotic brain when all I really wanted was to be getting on with being a new mum – I want them to know that there is hope, you can recover. So, here are my top mythbusters about my former nemesis, postpartum psychosis.
Myth 1. Postpartum psychosis is a severe form of postnatal depression
False. However, there are some similarities and, in fact, PP can be followed by a long depression. But the difference is in the kinds of symptoms you experience. With postnatal depression you may feel hopeless, constantly fatigued, irritable, experience a persistent low mood, and have a lack of interest in activities you previously liked. On the other hand, with PP you may be high and elated, doing out of character things. You might also be anxious, fearful, restless, confused, and paranoid – or you may feel worthless, suicidal, hear voices, and see or sense things that aren’t really there.
Telling the difference between postnatal depression and postpartum psychosis is important. PP can strike very quickly after birth, and get worse very quickly; it’s always an emergency. The risk to yourself and your baby may be greater. Plus, as PP is more closely related to bipolar disorder than depression, different treatments are needed.
Myth 2. People with PP need the same treatment as anyone with severe mental illness
False. People need specialist care for PP. As PP often starts days, or even hours, after giving birth, you are physically, as well as mentally, vulnerable – and you have a newborn to care for. In my case, I was bleeding heavily for a long time, I hadn’t slept for days, I had a fresh surgery scar and, on top of all that, I was struggling with breastfeeding and bonding. But also, perhaps most importantly, you need to be with your baby to form a relationship and develop your confidence as a mum. This is why we need specialist services for women with severe perinatal mental illness. It’s clear that any woman going through what I did needs expert postnatal care.
"Within days, my brain seemed to turn against me. My instinct vanished"
Myth 3. People with psychosis are scary
False. From movies and popular culture, we have a very insidious, tabloid idea of what somebody who is ‘psychotic’ looks like, making it harder to admit you need help. You worry that people will think you’re dangerous, or plotting to harm your baby. I never thought about harming my baby – all of my dark negative thoughts were internalised. I felt inadequate and, at times, wanted to take my own life. I was terrified of everything around me. From thinking plants were sending me messages, and teddy bears having cameras in their eyes, to believing my whole family were conspiring against me. I would walk around the hospital corridors thinking I was the most ‘evil’ person the nurses had ever seen – when in reality I was a frumpy, heartbroken woman in severe pain, wearing her little sister’s cupcake socks. Psychosis is frightening – but that doesn’t mean you are!
Myth 4. I’ve never had mental health problems – it couldn’t happen to me
False. It can happen to anyone. Birth trauma and sleep difficulties often come up in conversation about PP, as does a history of bipolar, but this isn’t always the case. I had no previous mental health issues and I had enjoyed a happy, calm pregnancy. While more research is being done as to the causes (we know that PP sometimes runs in families, happens more often with first babies, and pre-eclampsia has also been cited as a potential risk factor) at the moment, all we know is that it really can happen to anyone. If you have bipolar, it doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop PP, and similarly, if your life has been plain sailing, it doesn’t mean you won’t experience it.
Myth 5. You can’t recover from psychosis, and you won’t be a good mum
Absolutely false! One of the scariest things about not knowing what is wrong with you, is that you feel unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But I can tell you – it is there.
I didn’t get better overnight, my recovery wasn’t linear, it’s more like a game of Snakes and Ladders; you get so far and then feel yourself slide back down to the bottom. It was hard work, especially with a young baby. But gradually I felt the old me coming back. I still carried some strange thoughts into the months after I was discharged, but I think that’s because it’s difficult to reflect on what has happened with any clarity. I was traumatised. The whole episode was so confusing. But today, having had the right information, treatment, and support, and the unconditional love and support of my husband, friends, family, and all at APP, I am well and happy, and can safely say I love being a mum.
Myth 6. PP is so rare, you’ll never come across another person who’s had it
False. While PP isn’t one of the most common mental health problems, it’s not exactly rare. In fact, 1,400 women are diagnosed with PP each year in the UK. And there’s a whole community who have been there too, waiting to give you support. I’m testament to the fact that peer support can give you hope when you have none, help you understand the experience, and forgive yourself for what you went through. Finding others who you can be honest with, who won’t judge you because they’ve been there and worn the T-shirt, is invaluable. Having survived PP has made me more resilient, more empathetic and compassionate. In fact, it’s made me a better mum. So bye shame, bye blame. Hi life!
To find out more about Action on Postpartum Psychosis, along with further information about the symptoms and treatments available, visit app-network.org
For more of Laura Dockrill’s’s personal story, read her book, ‘What Have I Done?’ (Square Peg, £8.99), available in all good bookstores.
To connect with a counsellor to talk about postpartum psychosis, visit counselling-directory.org.uk