Postpartum Psychosis – Know the Facts and Stop Judging Based on Ignorance

Yesterday, I stumbled across a disturbing article that shows just how mired in stigma postpartum mood disorders (PPMDs) are, particularly postpartum psychosis (PPP), and how people just cannot understand why it is necessary to have a separate category of infanticide in cases where it is proven that an infant < 1 year of age dies by the hands of his/her mother who is suffering from postpartum psychosis.  I am not going to post a link to that article because it is completely ludicrous and not deserving of any further attention than it may already be getting.   Nor am I going to quote any portions of the article or any of the biased comments.  Instead, I’m getting my thoughts out via my own blog.  I wasn’t about to post a comment and be eaten alive by people who haven’t a freakin’ clue and who insist on voicing their self righteous opinions, going off on anti-women and anti-abortion tangents.  Not worth my effort whatsoever.   

All I will say is this.  As long as society doesn’t educate people on the truth behind the various PPMDs, they are going to continue to be stigmatized and mothers suffering from a PPMD will be afraid to get the help they need.   In my opinion, the medical and mental health care communities are largely responsible for not educating the public about PPMDs.   Keeping quiet about PPMDs isn’t going to make them go away. Most people are not aware that the rate of PPD in new moms is ONE IN EIGHT.  I just blogged about that in my last post.   Per the Postpartum Support International website, PPP occurs at a rate of  approximately 1-2 of every 1,000 deliveries (or approximately .01% of births) , with a 5% risk of infanticide/suicide.  And we don’t even know just how many mothers out there fall through the cracks as far as proper diagnosis and treatment for PPMDs are concerned.  

In the United Kingdom, because PPP is recognized as an illness rather than a crime, infanticide by a woman diagnosed with PPP is treated rather than put in jail for murder.  There are about two dozen other countries that have put infanticide laws in place, which they have basically modeled after the British one.  Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey. 

How many times do you hear about mothers killing their children via drowning, suffocation or some other terrible means?  Yes, these stories reflect the unthinkable, the unimaginable.  But who knows what condition these mothers were in?  Did these women try to warn anyone that they weren’t feeling themselves?  Did they show signs of severe depression that went ignored by loved ones and even doctors?   Did they get help but were prescribed the wrong course of treatment? 

People ignorant about PPMDs don’t understand why a mother who isn’t feeling well after childbirth doesn’t just get help.  These people prefer to stay in the rut of ignorance they’ve fallen into and can’t (or refuse to) climb out of.  These people would prefer to blame the new mom for their actions without considering what the woman’s situation may have been like.   In my humble opinion, if a new mom is diagnosed with PPP by an expert in that field, that determination MUST be factored in during the trial for sentencing purposes.

Barriers to progress include, but are not limited to, the following…..as I’ve said time and time again:

  • All too many mothers are still afraid of speaking up and getting help today.  Look at the stigma and the awful things that get written in the media and on blogs.  Due to lack of public awareness campaigns, all too many mothers still don’t know enough about PPMDs to know when they are suffering from one, let alone how to get help.  
  • Not all mothers who need help have access to doctors, therapists and support services within their communities that are adequately equipped and trained to help moms suffering from PPMDs. 
  • Not all mothers have family members that can help care for the new baby and the new mom.   There are all too many moms out there fending for themselves and their babies on their own, including single moms and moms whose husbands don’t help at all, either because they’re always at work or are unwilling to help (yes, there are men like this).

The main keys behind reducing the occurrence of PPMDs among new moms include:

  • SUPPORT:  Ensuring moms get the emotional and practical support they need after childbirth
  • EDUCATION:  Ensuring an increase in public awareness about PPMDs, including what they are, why they occur, how to minimize risk of occurrence, and how to recognize when someone has a PPMD and how they can get help (medical/therapy)
  • EARLY DETECTION AND PROPER TREATMENT:  Ensuring all medical/mental healthcare practitioners are trained to detect, diagnose, and treat PPMDs properly

Until these 3 points are satisfied, women will continue to fall through the cracks with sometimes tragic consequences, and they are victims of a society that all too often focuses its priorities in the wrong places. 

I’ve blogged about these 3 points before, but I haven’t really ever blogged about PPP or postpartum OCD (which is all too often confused with PPP).   Both Postpartum Progress and Beyond Postpartum contain many helpful posts–too many to list here–on both these PPMDs.   Just visit these blogs and do a search of those two terms.

What is PPP?

PPP can occur anywhere from 24 hours to 2-3 weeks postpartum.  PPP is always considered a medical emergency that requires the mother to be hospitalized so she can be monitored and treated.  A woman with PPP typically alternates between reality and losing touch with reality, with episodes characterized by command hallucinations to kill the baby or delusions that the infant is possessed.  You may think that the one case you hear about that involves delusions relating to the devil—think Andrea Yates—is a purely isolated case.  Unfortunately, it’s not.

The leading risk factor for PPP is a personal and/or family history of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, or mental illness.   Bipolar disorder (more commonly known as manic depression) is characterized by extreme mood swings (thus, bipolar) alternating between highs (mania)—where they may experience elevated moods and increased energy levels, confidence, productivity, sociability and creativity—and lows (depression).  

There is risk that some woman suffering from PPP—who experience symptoms of both mania and depression—can mistakenly be misdiagnosed with and treated for PPD.  The danger of this is that some medications used to treat PPD can actually aggravate the symptoms and lead to disastrous consequences, as in the case of Andrea Yates, which I will talk about later in this post. 

PPP can be hard to diagnose because the woman can have periods of high energy, which can be mistaken for happiness.  This period is characterized by so much energy to the point of never feeling tired and no need for sleep.  During the first couple of weeks after her baby is born, a woman in the hypomanic phase feels energized and on top of the world, thinking to herself: “Gee, this is how those supermoms out there feel.  Motherhood is just as easy as those moms make it look.”  After leaving the hospital and without ever needing to rest, she goes straight into taking care of the baby along with doing all the housework, cooking and shopping without any help whatsoever.    

Symptoms of hypomania/mania may include some or all of the following:

  • Increased energy; hyperactivity; restlessness
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Feeling elated
  • Racing/disorganized thoughts
  • Increased energy, productivity, creativity
  • Feeling overly confident
  • More talkative, rapid speech
  • More outgoing
  • Impulsive behavior

Because the symptoms of hypomania have the tendency to create the impression that the new mother is merely excited about the baby and motherhood, PPP has the tendency to be missed until after the hypomanic phase is over and a mother sinks into a deep depression, after which the following symptoms may develop and become dangerous if she doesn’t get help quickly.  

  • Hallucinations (visual/auditory)—hearing, seeing, feeling and even smelling things that aren’t really there—often characterized by voices or a vision of someone instructing the mother to kill the baby.  Inability to distinguish between reality and hallucinations; when hallucinating, fully believing what she is thinking, hearing and/or seeing represents reality.
  • Paranoia and irrational/delusional thoughts/fears, such as denial of the baby’s birth or other random feelings of suspicion that can cause violent behavior.  In the midst of a violently psychotic episode, some even seem to gain superhuman powers, such as being able to rip a radiator out of the hospital wall.
  • Feeling like your thoughts are no longer your own and you can no longer control them.
  • Rambling and incoherent speech
  • Confusion, incoherence and poor judgment
  • Extreme and rapid mood swings
  • Extreme agitation
  • Belief that she must kill herself and/or the baby

A woman in the delusional state of PPP should never be taken lightly by those around her, as there is a high incidence of suicide and/or infanticide when PPP goes undiagnosed and untreated.  It’s during the extreme lows that new mothers with psychosis may try to commit suicide and/or hurt/kill her baby.  It’s really sad when you hear about those who succeed. 

What Loved Ones Should Be Aware Of:

Firstly, at the slightest hint of suicidal or infanticidal thoughts by a new mother, medical help should be sought immediately and the baby should not be left alone with her—not even for a minute.  All it takes is a minute for disastrous consequences to occur.  Do not wait to see if things get any better.  I’ve read of many instances where the behavior was ignored until it was too late. The mother should be hospitalized to protect her life and that of her baby’s.  The hospital is a place where the mother and baby can be safe, cared for and monitored until the mother is able to provide adequate care for herself and her baby. Going to an ER is the best way to guarantee medical attention immediately, since most doctors will not likely be able to see her right away without an appointment made in advance.

In any of these situations, call 911 or the national suicide hotline (National Hopeline Network) at 800-784-2433.

You should seek help for her immediately when any of the following occurs—don’t wait:

  • At the first sign of a change in personality or bizarre behavior.
  • If she insists she does not need rest and seems highly energized.  If she doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the fact that she’s just given birth and should take it easy.  For example, planting flowers is not typically unusual behavior but should be questioned if a new mom is doing it upon arriving home after a c-section.
  • When you can’t seem to get through to her.
  • She seems confused or on a different wavelength or lost touch with reality.
  • Where there is weird/paranoid/delusional behavior (says/thinks illogical things about things/people).
  • If she complains of imagining or hearing things.

 

Andrea Yates

Pretty much everyone in this country has heard about the Andrea Yates case.  After each of her children were born, she suffered PPD but never sought treatment until her 5th child was born and she developed PPP.  She still didn’t seek any help because she did not realize the dangers of her PPP.  On June 20, 2001, she decided she had to drown her children in order to save them from Satan.  Instead of receiving treatment for her PPP, she was sentenced to life in prison.  On January 6, 2005 the Texas Court of Appeals reversed the convictions due to the determination that the psychiatrist who served as a prosecution witness had given materially false testimony during the trial.  On July 26, 2006, with an expert testifying in her defense, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity, as defined by the state of Texas.  She is now staying at a low security state mental hospital in Texas. 

Had she and those in her life known that her symptoms indicated she needed immediate hospitalization, her children would still be alive today.   Not heeding her psychiatrist’s warning never to leave her alone with the children, her husband Rusty did just that.  Between the time he left to go to work and the time his mother came to help with the children—a span of an hour—Andrea drowned all 5 of her children.  In fact, without consulting the doctor and against medical advice, Rusty began to leave his wife alone with the children for several weeks prior to the drownings.  It appears that Rusty is in large part responsible for what happened, not only for ignoring the psychiatrist’s warning but also to persuade Andrea they should continue to have children despite warnings from Andrea’s psychiatrist against doing so. 

Additionally, Dr. Lucy Puryear, the expert witness for the defense regarding PPP, indicated she did not think Andrea would have ever drowned her children if it hadn’t been for the religious influences of her minister, Michael Woroniecki.  Per Wikipedia, it was because of him that Rusty and Andrea “built a framework of homicidal and suicidal delusions in [Andrea’s] ill mind through ‘relentless gloom and doom sermonizing’….and [Andrea] had come to believe [through his sermons and a 1996 video they had received from the minister] that she was a ‘bad mother’ who was spiritually and behaviorally damaging her children, and that it was better to kill herself and her offspring rather than to allow them to continue ‘stumbling’ and go to hell.”

This tragedy would not have happened if everyone with whom the Yates came into contact during those years in which Andrea was obviously not well were educated about her risk for and dangers of PPP, advised them on what to do and actually tried to do something along the lines of helping to provide adequate social support and even intervention.  In terms of Andrea’s risk for PPP, Andrea’s father and brother both had bipolar disorder and her mother, sister and other brother had a history of major depression.  Her story is a prime example of how our healthcare system and society overall fail mothers.  Even today, most people know about the Andrea Yates case but very few individuals realize that she had suffered from PPP.  Only those educated about PPD and PPP or have experienced either one firsthand can truly emphathize with her.  The general public thinks such a monster deserves to be put away for life or have her own life taken away for snuffing out the lives of all 5 of her children.  Her story shows how desperately in need we are of putting public awareness of perinatal mood disorders up at the top of the priorities in this country.

Difference between Postpartum OCD and PPP

It is unfortunate and quite scary that these distinctions still elude many doctors, which does nothing to motivate mothers to reveal their experiences.  Unfortunately, because not all healthcare professionals are adequately trained about postpartum mood disorders, they are unable to successfully distinguish between postpartum OCD symptoms and PPP.  If you are experiencing postpartum OCD symptoms, share them as soon as possible with someone you trust and who is nonjudgmental and sympathetic, most preferably a therapist who can help treat your condition. If you do not know any therapists or don’t know anyone that can recommend one to you, you can contact Postpartum Support International for names of therapists in your area.    

The mother with postpartum OCD experiences recurring, obsessive, sickening, frightening and mostly violent thoughts/mental images. The postpartum OCD mother, realizing these uncontrollable, unwelcome thoughts are repulsive, irrational and not normal, would never let any harm come to her baby—even taking specific steps to protect the baby, like making sure she is never left alone with the baby and letting someone else take care of the baby until she is herself again.  Deep inside she knows she loves and would never hurt her baby, but her thoughts are terrifying enough to make her doubt herself and feel anxious about being left alone with the baby. 

The mother with PPP, on the other hand, has delusional beliefs about the baby (e.g., baby is a demon or Satan said she had to kill the baby in order to save the baby’s soul), and is capable of acting on her thoughts of harming the baby.  Women with PPP are unable to tell right from wrong, fully believing the delusion they are experiencing is real.  The PPP mother may—thinking that she is doing something difficult but morally right—hurt and possibly even kill her baby and/or herself as a consequence of her delusions.

In short, a woman with postpartum OCD realizes that these thoughts are disturbing, not normal and not real, while a woman with PPP isn’t disturbed by these thoughts because she thinks they are real, rational and in some cases are coming from someone else, like God or Satan (unfortunately there is something to the saying “the devil made me do it”) telling her that the baby is possessed or destined for a terrible fate, and she must follow his instructions if she hopes to set things straight.

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17 thoughts on “Postpartum Psychosis – Know the Facts and Stop Judging Based on Ignorance

  1. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this, funny thing is that my name is Ivy as well. I have recently been researching this topic (PPP), as I believe this was the cause of my mother committing suicide. I have always been told that my mother was one of the sweetest people, and so caring, giving, and kind-hearted. My father still tells me that “they had been married 5 years and wanted a baby so badly and that she was so excited to finally conceive.” He said she had the perfect pregnancy up until she went into labor. I was 2 and 1/2 months old and it was Feb of 1987 when I lost my mother. My father’s sister (my Aunt who raised me) recognized something was wrong with her around two weeks after having an emergency c-section, and had her put in a mental hospital. My father had witnessed strange behavior (he says now that he realizes she had actually “lost touch with reality”. After being in the hospital for a week, the Doctor merely sent her home with medication and said she would be just fine, and that it was normal baby blues.The situation ended up where my father had to run to the store I was left alone with my mother for 10 minutes, and she took her life while sparring mine. (Or this is the story I was finally told when I was old enough to hear it)

    Long story short, I am proud to see people trying to spread the word and educate people on a subject that is too often overlooked. I hope my story will help encourage new mothers and familys to be precautious of the signs and symptoms and get help sooner than later.

  2. Thanks for this post, however you should know that it is possible to have PPP within a year of giving birth. My son was 6 months old and I had a severe case of PPP and was hospitalized for ten days.

    • Hello Tara,
      Thank you for leaving a comment and sharing what you had experienced. I hope you are doing okay now. Let me know if you or anyone you know would like to share your experience in more detail on a guest post here on my blog. You can post anonymously or under your real name.

  3. My daughter in law had a baby in July. It was a healthy pregnancy, but a long 25 hour labor. The baby was healthy. There were no major complications and she never had any mental illness before. Her mother and a great aunt have bipolar disorder. 4 days after the birth she started having flight of ideas, insomnia, confusion. Her doctor treated her with celexa, it got worse and she wound up being hosptialized and diagnosed with post partum psychosis. She was hospitalized for 23 days and during that time developed neuroleptic malignant syndrome and nearly died. After she recovered we had several good days but then we started seeing the insomnia and confusion again, they would not treat it due to the nms. We requested a transfer, but were ignored, we had to get an attorney to get her out of there. We had her medical and psychiatric care all covered at home, but the hospital where she was at did not given her any meds to come home on. After 2 days at home, the confusion and flight of ideas came again. We took her back to the hosptial and she has been there since. The baby is 9 weeks old now. Her doctors have told us they don’t know how to reverse this, they can’t give many psychotropics due to the nms. We need some help. We need to get her well, she is 22 years old….any ideas or thought or suggestions are welcome. We have reached desperation. She is alert now, angry I think over all of this, but still has flight of ideas and trouble expressnig herself. We don’t know what to do.

    • Michelle,
      I’m so sorry for hearing about your daughter-in-law’s experience and very sorry for not replying earlier. I was at a Postpartum Support Int’l (PSI) conference in Seattle until yesterday, with no ability to update comments on my blog until today. Since I’m not a medical professional, I can’t provide any advice other than to refer you to the PSI warmline 800-944-4PPD. But I can tell you that, from what I know, they’re not supposed to just prescribe an antidepressant for someone who has been diagnosed with PPP. She also needs to be on a mood stabilizer. But with the NMS, perhaps ECT is the way to go? Again, I am not a med professional….pls consult with her doctor about the possibility of ECT at this point. Please keep me posted on her progress.

  4. Hi Ivy,
    Just found your blog after I wrote my post this evening about my PPP experience (the first part, it’s a long story)…..thank you for putting this information out there. I believe it is just as important for the medical community to educate women about the warning signs for PPP as it is for them to teach about PPD. I hope that I can help to get the word out to help other women once i finish my book which will be about how women with bipolar disorder can have children successfully if they are careful with taking their medications and working with their doctors.
    Keep up the great work!

    • Hi Bipolar & Pregnant,
      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I just went over to your blog and I see the wonderful work you yourself have been doing to share your experience with others. Thank YOU for what you do! And you are in the process of writing a book…that’s great! I am going to add you to my Blog Roll, and will try to stay in touch. I’ve been working on a book for the past 6 years myself and it should be out on Amazon within the next couple of months. Let me kow if you have any questions on that whole process. All the best, Ivy

  5. Thank you for this informative article! I am still researching PPP,but believe that would explain my experience…I never, in my worst nightmares , imagined I would have to deal with psychosis…I really appreciate Teresa Twomney’s work on these incredibly hard topics also. Please feel free to contact me…(208)267-5798

    • Hi Daisy,
      Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment! Are you currently suffering from PPP, or are you a PPP survivor and are now doing research for a book/blog/support services?
      Best,
      Ivy

      • Hi ..
        I had alot happen in my life last year, & just found your reply! 🙂
        I know very little about the computer, & too much about pppsychosis! Yes, I & my family are survivors… June 10,2009 was my day of horror..& after much excellent professional help
        I still have many questions medically…it was very hard for me to find answers about PPP, & at that time, especially, I wanted them! I’m VERY interested in more conversation…. daisybontrager@gmail.com is my e-mail..

        • Hi Daisy,
          Wow, it’s been over a year. Hope things are going well. Would love to correspond, but not sure I would be the best person to discuss PPP with you. Have you spoken to Teresa Twomey? Now, she would be the expert on PPP.

          • Yes, we’ve spoken several times…& I have her book, ” PPP, A Temporary Madness” I had many questions because of several reasons~ no known previous mental illness, Dom.V , & alot of close pregnancies (5) It has been an incredibly painful jourrney, but believe God has carried me ! & I’m so grateful for His mercy,grace, & redeeming love…. I have found my best research on-line, & your article was amazingly informative…. thank you,Ivy

            • Daisy,
              I am so glad you found my blog post helpful! I’m sorry to hear about your pregnancy losses. I would be happy to email you if you need someone to “chat” with about pregnancy loss. I had quite a bumpy road to motherhood. In fact, I just signed off my book (One Mom’s Journey to Motherhood: Infertility, Childbirth Complications, and Postpartum Depression, Oh My!) for publication today! Be on the lookout for more info on it!
              All the best,
              Ivy

  6. Great post Ivy!

    Just one point of clarification I’d toss in is that women with ppp are also very frequently disturbed by their thoughts/hallucinations/delusions. It is just that they feel they have no choice but to act on them believing the commands they are getting emanate from some higher/controlling authority.

    In fact, the fact that what they are being asked to do disturbs them so much is often the reason why women with ppp frequently try to kill themselves (believing it to be better than being forced to do what they are being compelled to do).

    Thanks for educating everyone!

    • Hi, thanks for visiting, taking the time to comment, and providing further clarification to my post! I just wish there was a way to more broadly educate everyone in this country about PPMDs!

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