Severe mental health problems and postpartum psychosis

Very occasionally, some people can develop a severe mental health problem including a severe depressive episode, a severe anxiety disorder or a psychotic illness. From research, we know that some people are at a higher risk of developing more severe episodes of illness in the perinatal period including those who have been severely unwell before, in previous perinatal periods or those with a family history of severe perinatal illness. We also know that women with a pre-existing diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder or Schizophrenia are at an increased risk of having a relapse in the perinatal period or developing a postpartum psychosis.

Postpartum psychosis is a relatively uncommon condition affecting approximately 2 out of every 1000 women who have babies. It is a serious condition that requires specialist hospital treatment and early identification of symptoms is key to accessing the right treatment at that right time.

Postpartum psychosis can start in the first few days or weeks following childbirth and can progress rapidly. The symptoms include:

  • A disturbance in sleep pattern and not being able to sleep or rest
  • Feeling agitated and confused or disorientated
  • Feeling suspicious or fearful
  • Having strange or unusual ideas or thoughts called delusions or delusional beliefs
  • Hallucinations, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting or feeling things that are not there
  • Loss of inhibitions where you may behave in a way that is out of character
  • Labile mood where you may experience rapid mood change from depressed and tearful to elated in quick succession

Postpartum psychosis is a treatable condition, but it is important to access your health provider at the earliest opportunity to ensure you can access the right care quickly.

The higher risk group for developing a postpartum psychosis include women who have a diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder, Schizophrenia or have had a previous postpartum psychosis or have a family member who have experienced a postpartum psychosis. Women in this group are encouraged to attend pre-conception counselling within their local specialist perinatal team to discuss their individual care plan to reduce the risk of becoming unwell in the perinatal period.