A severe mental illness that can affect new mothers is called Postpartum Psychosis, puerperal psychosis or postnatal psychosis. This illness is said to affect about one in 1,000 women about to deliver. Some mothers experience disturbing emotions and flatness, signs that they suffer from postpartum psychosis, which cause them to have hallucinations and mental delusions.
This mental illness is distinctive for the new mother finding it extremely difficult to emotionally respond to her newborn. In fact, she can even have thoughts of harming her baby.
Women display symptoms of postpartum psychosis usually within the first two weeks after childbirth. Very rarely, women may display symptoms many weeks after childbirth. Typically, the symptoms of postpartum psychosis show up just a few hours after childbirth and are identified as feeling high, keeping awake, talking more than ever, confusion and feeling sacred.
Some of this illness’ symptoms are:
The new mother feels elated, over-excited or ‘high,’ apart from feeling hyperactive, and very energetic. She does not feel sleepy but is agitated, irritable, restless and her mind races from thought to thought.
Depression and low moods
The new mother feels depressed and this state alternates between feeling moody. Her low moods include being weepy and withdrawn, listless and lack of energy, little or no appetite. They are anxious, irritable and have difficulty sleeping.
Women suffering from postpartum psychosis hears voices, sees things or smells strange odours that others cannot and that aren’t actually there.
Women with postpartum psychosis hold false beliefs firmly. Sometimes, they concern the new baby, so it’s not uncommon to hear them say that the little one has been ‘sent from God’, or is ‘evil’. It’s equally common to find mothers who think that there’s some reference to her on the radio or TV, or that she’s won a lottery or has been found to have special healing powers. Their thoughts are entirely baseless.
Women experience muddled or rapid thoughts and changes in mood every so often. Some women experience mania symptoms and depression together.
Patients with this illness have sudden thoughts to throw the baby away or harm it.
In extreme forms of this illness, women exhibit the following behaviours: they talk to themselves, do not eat, stare into space or make irrational statements. They also have a blank expression on their faces, or a “flat effect”.
Lack of emotion
Women are unable to respond emotionally to their babies.
Women sleep much more than the normal interrupted sleep that is typical of new motherhood.
Women experience changes in their diet and appetite.
Women toy with the idea of suicide, believing that the baby and its family can cope excellently without her, the mother.
Postpartum psychosis is not the fault of the new mother, neither is it the result of something she or her partner have done or have thought of doing. Genetic factors are the cause of women suffering from postpartum psychosis. So, if it runs in the family, women are likely to suffer from it. Associated factors include disrupted sleep habits and changes in hormone levels.
Who’s a likely candidate for postpartum psychosis?
Often, women suffer from postpartum psychosis without any warning. Yet, for other women there’s a high risk for developing postpartum psychosis. Women who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or any other psychotic illness run a high risk for developing postpartum psychosis.
Women who have already suffered from this condition earlier run a high risk of developing it again. Anyone subscribing to any of these high risk groups have a very high chance of developing postpartum psychosis, about 25% to 50%. It’s important to discuss this individual risk with an experienced psychiatrist.
Lastly, if you have a close relative (like your mother or sister) with postpartum psychosis, but you have not suffered any form of mental illness, your risk for postpartum psychosis is about 3%.
Conclusion: If you are diagnosed with this mental condition, you will take about a year to be completely recovered. In extreme cases, it may last for about 12 weeks. Women, however, always recover from it fully.