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Postpartum psychosis can be catastrophic, but what are the signs?
Postpartum psychosis can be catastrophic, but what are the signs?

 - Updated September 2021 -

News stories appear with alarming regularity of moms who do the unthinkable: Kill their children.

What could make a mother hurt, or worse, kill her own children? While any number of factors could contribute to a woman feeling like this is her only option, occasionally postpartum psychosis or an extreme episode of mental illness directly after childbirth has been linked to this.

Reactions to these news reports often brand sufferers as 'monsters', but the symptoms of this devastating condition are not that mystical, and, when identified are often treatable.

Postpartum psychosis is rarely linked to suicide or infanticide, those being more commonly linked to postpartum depression, however, without treatment, both mother and child may be at risk.

Read: SA mother referred for mental evaluation by New Zealand court after the murder of her 3 children 

What is it?

Postpartum psychosis is described as a group of mental illnesses which may occur as pre-existent mental illnesses, or only present post-birth. It has been closely linked to manic depressive (bipolar) disorder and menstrual psychosis.

Some medical professionals consider postpartum depression to be directly related, while others see PPD as a separate illness.

Its incidence is reportedly seen in 1-2 per 1000 births, although this figure shoots up by more than 100% when the patient has a previously diagnosed bipolar condition or another birth in which she experienced postpartum psychosis. It has also been linked to genetic/heritable factors.

Listen: Maternal Mental Health | A Parent24/7 podcast series 

Comparatively, "Baby Blues" is reported in around half of new moms, appearing 3 to 4 days after birth, and postnatal depression occurs in around 10 to 15 out of every 100.

Mothers who suffer an episode are liable to other manic depressive or acute polymorphic episodes, some of which occur after other children are born, some during pregnancy or after an abortion, and some unrelated to childbearing.

Expectant moms who are on medication or treatment for bipolar disorder or depression should seek the advice of a doctor before stopping medication.

Watch: The 'scary thoughts' women who suffer severe post-natal depression have

Watch out for these warning signs:

These are some warning signs that you (or a mom you know) may be suffering from postpartum psychosis:

  • Delusions or strange beliefs (occasionally with religious content)
  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there)
  • Feeling very irritated
  • Hyperactivity
  • Decreased need for or inability to sleep
  • Paranoia and suspiciousness
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Difficulty communicating at times/disorganised speech

Some switch between mania and depression within the same episode. The manic or acute state is usually noticeable within 14 days of the birth, while the depressive behaviour develops later.

It is essential to get treatment

Treatment for postpartum psychosis depends on the condition of the patient and may vary from tranquilisation, mood-stabilising medication and electro-convulsive (electroshock) therapy in combination with hospitalisation and observation, to close observation in a home environment.

In the latter, a medical professional will closely monitor the recovery of the patient. Home-based treatment is preferred where possible, as the mother will be able to spend more time bonding with the newborn baby under supervision. Close friends or family may be asked to assist in mom's recovery.

It is vital to recognise that postpartum psychosis is not a condition which is under the control of the mother - she is not to blame - but it is essential to get treatment.

If you decide you need professional help or advice, or you suspect someone you know is in need of support, call one of these numbers below:

Suicide Crisis Line: 0800 567 567

SADAG Mental Health Line: 011 234 4837

Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit 24 Hour: 0861 435 787

Or visit South African Depression and Anxiety Group or Post Natal Depression South Africa for help. 

Sources: Postpartum Support InternationalRoyal College of Psychiatrists, Wikipedia. 

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