Dealing with Postpartum Mental Illness

With Amalie asleep, Leilani is texting friends and family
Creative Commons License photo credit: Lars Plougmann

While things are changing somewhat, the fact of the matter is that there is still quite a bit of stigma about postpartum mental illness. It doesn’t help that, so often, the media get it wrong. A disaster will strike and a woman will commit awful acts, and the media will attribute it to “postpartum depression.” While postpartum depression is serious and can, if untreated, cause a woman to harm herself or others, most often such incidents are actually a much more rare, and severe, condition known as “postpartum psychosis.”

There are a number of conditions that can strike a woman after childbirth. It’s estimated that somewhere around 15 to 20 percent of women will experience postpartum depression or a related pregnancy mental illness. Understanding those conditions can help you recognize when you or someone else might be experiencing one.

It’s worth talking, first of all, about postpartum depression. This condition is usually recognized by feelings of extreme sadness, loss, and guilt. You may also feel irritable, angry, or hopeless. Postpartum depression often brings with it changes in appetite, eating patterns, sleeplessness, or more sleeping than usual. Postpartum depression can be treated in a variety of ways, and you should talk to a doctor right away if you believe you’re experiencing this condition.

Postpartum psychosis is much more severe than postpartum depression. It includes episodes of hallucinations. These might be auditory, as in hearing voices, or they might even be visual hallucinations. Postpartum psychosis may include delusions and paranoia, as well. This condition is the most severe of the postpartum mental illnesses, and requires immediate medical assistance.

Some women experience a great deal of worry and fear after their baby is born, and this fear often relates to the safety and well-being of their baby. Postpartum anxiety is closely related to postpartum depression. Fortunately, it is also treatable. If you experience postpartum anxiety, you may also have a panic attack, which is recognized by shortness of breath, heart pains, dizziness, and other physical symptoms.

There are other conditions, too. Postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, includes OCD brought on after pregnancy. Postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition in which childbirth becomes a traumatic event, and the woman may experience horrific images and flashbacks.

If you believe you’re suffering from postpartum mental illness, talk to your doctor. These conditions are treatable, but you need to take that first step to seek help.

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