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More than the ‘baby blues’

(Credit: Flickr/Ville Misaki)

(Credit: Flickr/Ville Misaki)

At an MRC-sponsored session at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June, women who have experienced postpartum psychosis recounted their experiences. MRC External Communications Officer Stacy-Ann Ashley was there, and reflects on this little-mentioned condition.

I had never heard about postpartum psychosis before, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The condition, in which new mothers experience psychotic symptoms in the days or weeks after having a baby, is not often talked about and women often hide their symptoms.

All the more impressive then that two women who have experienced this form of psychosis were willing to share their experiences on a rainy, windy evening at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

The session was led by Dr Ian Jones from the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University. Ian specialises in the psychiatry of women during pregnancy and after childbirth and is also Chair of Action Postpartum Psychosis. He explained that about one in every 1,000 new mothers suffers from postpartum psychosis (PP), which has a kaleidoscope of severity and symptoms.

Although it is more common in those who already suffer from mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, it can also occur in women who have no background of mental illness. It is not known what causes PP, but it is more likely in people with a family history of psychosis or bipolar disorder and is probably triggered by stress and hormone changes.

Clare Dolman, Chair of Bipolar UK, experienced PP after the birth of her first child, five years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She suffered from hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia and spent time in a psychiatric hospital, but said she felt that her symptoms were at the low end of the psychosis scale. Clare was joined by Tracy Vicker, who suffered from severe hallucinations after childbirth. She had never experienced mental illness before and was very much unaware of postpartum psychosis and what was happening to her.

It’s reassuring that Ian and his colleagues atCardiffare working with volunteers to try and establish the causes of PP and how it can be better managed. They are also working to improve knowledge of this illness through events such as the one at Cheltenham, as well as through Action Postpartum Psychosis.

Clare and Tracy were incredibly honest about their experiences and their descriptions really brought home how frightening and severe postpartum psychosis can be. By being so open, Clare and Tracy are helping us to see that the after-effects of childbirth on mothers can be so much more than just the ‘baby blues’.

Stacy-Ann Ashley

The Medical Research Foundation, the MRC’s independently managed charity, is currently seeking applications for research into postpartum psychosis.

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