This week is Mental Health Awareness Week which was established by the U.S. congress in 1990 to recognize the National Alliance of Mental Illness’ efforts to raise the awareness of mental illness. It just so happens that last week’s police chase and subsequent shooting and killing of Miriam Carey has brought mental illness and postpartum psychosis into the spotlight.
What Is Postpartum Psychosis?
Many people have heard of postpartum depression, but not many people have heard of it’s evil sister, postpartum psychosis. When I was in graduate school I was so fascinated by postpartum psychosis that I actually did a 20 page research paper on the phenomenon.
It isn’t uncommon for women, after giving birth to feel down, sad or even somewhat depressed. This is what is known as “baby blues” and approximately 70-80% of mothers feel this contradicting negative thoughts and sadness after experiencing the joy of giving birth.
Many women don’t talk about it because they feel guilty or “bad” because of these feelings, but it’s important that they talk about the way they feel so that the “baby blues” don’t progress into something deeper like postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression basically is a much more intense and prolonged feeling of negativity, depression and mood swings when compared to the “baby blues”. This can last weeks, months or even longer.
Postpartum psychosis is the most severe and extreme form of postpartum depression and not only does it typically include the intense sadness, negativity and mood swings of postpartum depression, but it also includes the onset of psychotic symptoms after childbirth.
An example taken from a personal experience I had dealing with a client I diagnosed with postpartum psychosis is that she was extremely depressed at times and then highly erratic and impulsive other times. She was extremely irritable and was having hallucinations which included voices and delusions that her newborn was evil and needed to be killed.
Like a lot of women who deal with the “baby blues”, postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, she tried to hide the way she was feeling and mask her psychotic symptoms until it got to the point that she was about to drown her child in the bathtub. It was then she went to her family for help and was taken to the psychiatric hospital.
This particular young lady ended up being okay after treatment which included therapy and a brief period of taking lithium. Her child was subsequently raised by the maternal grandparents although legally this young woman still has full custody and spends time with her daughter often.
Postpartum psychosis is extremely rare which is one reason it is not often talked about and another reason many people who suffer from it try to hide it because they are struggling to try to understand exactly what it is they are going through and may feel alone.
Symptoms of postpartum psychosis Include, but are not limited to:
- overactivity (hyper)
- decreased sleep
- talkative (loquaciousness/hyperverbal)
- flight of ideas
- grandiose thinking or behavior
- religiously preoccupied
- mood swings
Other Famous Examples of Postpartum Psychosis
Although postpartum psychosis is rare, some popular cases include Melanie Blocker-Stokes, a successful pharmaceutical sales manager happily married to a physician.
On June 11, 2001 she gave birth to a baby girl and soon developed severe depression, stopped eating and drinking and no longer could swallow just four weeks after giving birth.
She became paranoid and thought her neighbors closed their blinds because they thought she was a bad mother and although she was in and out of several hospitals, was on several medications and even received electroconvulsive therapy, she killed herself by jumping off of the roof top of a Chicago hotel. Her daughter was only 3 and a half months old.
Melanie always wanted to become a mother and it’s a tragedy that becoming a mother ultimately took her life. She had written in her journal before her death: “How can I explain to anybody how something has, literally, come inside my body…I’m no good to anyone. No good to myself.”
She called some her friends and family and left what they now know were her final goodbyes and to her husband she left a note that simply read: “Sam, I adore you, Sommer and Andy, Mel.” Andy was her husband Sam’s son and her stepson and Sommer (Sommer Skyy) was her newborn child.
Her battle with postpartum psychosis helped congress pass the Melanie Blocker-Stokes Postpartum Depression Research and Care Act in 2010 aimed at increasing research, education and screening of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. Sadly not much has been done since it was passed, but this is the story that sparked me to write my research paper in graduate school and got me interested in postpartum psychosis.
Perhaps most famously there was Andrea Yates whose mental health seemed to deteriorate with each child she gave birth to. She had attempted suicide twice and was urged against not having any more children after being hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital after her fourth child. Never-the-least she gave birth to a fifth child and three months later she was hospitalized again twice and warned not to be left alone with her children.
However, one day she was left alone for only an hour and tragically drowned all five of her children. She’s currently committed to a high-security psychiatric hospital.
Miriam Carey was a 34 year old mother of a one year old little girl. She was a dental hygienist with plans on going to dental school. Last week she made the decision to drive from her home in Conneticut to Washington, D.C. Some reports say that she was mad with President Obama for listening to her phone conversations.
In any case, with her young daughter in tow, she drove to Capitol Hill, crashing into barricades around the White House, police cars and speeding recklessly down Pennsylvania Avenue before she was shot and killed by law enforcement after attempting to use her car as a weapon.
It’s unfortunate that Miriam Carey was shot and killed, especially with her one year old daughter in the car. After listening to her family talk on CNN last week talk about her struggles with postpartum psychosis and a family history of mental illness including schizophrenia, I wish something could have been done sooner although she was apparently taking medication for an unknown mental illness.
It’s possible that although her family knew she was having some mental problems, they didn’t know how severe they were or even what they were because she was most likely keeping them in the dark and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) keeps doctors and mental health professionals from being able to discuss a persons medical and mental issues with family members which helps explain why her family members and friends where all shocked that she was behaving so erratically and reckless especially with her daughter in the car. They were all shocked to learn that she had even driving to Washington, D.C. out of the blue.
They may have known she had issues, but never suspected that they were as severe as they turned out to be.
According to everything I have read as reported by her family members and her boyfriend, her main symptoms were paranoia and delusions. It’s a good chance that her mental health problems existed before she was pregnant and that her pregnancy exacerbated the condition and developed into postpartum psychosis.
For example, she could have been suffering from bipolar disorder or a mood disorder previously and possibly stopped taking her medication to prevent them from having side effects on the baby and then everything just snow balled out of control with the natural hormonal and mood changes that occur with pregnancy.
Many women who develop postpartum psychosis already have other underlying mental health issues
Her death however is not in vain as it helps bring attention to postpartum complications like “baby blues”, postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis so that maybe more women who are suffering silently will speak out and reach out for help.
If you or someone you know is suffering from postpartum depression of any kind, have them speak with their doctor. For more information visit http://www.postpartum.net/ or call 1-800-944-4PDD.