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Postpartum psychosis

6-minute read

If you or someone close to you is having thoughts of self-harm or you are worried for your baby’s safety, go to the nearest hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Postpartum psychosis is a mental illness that can affect you in the first few weeks after giving birth.
  • Your symptoms can appear suddenly, where you lose your ‘sense of reality’ including hallucinations, delusions, mood swings and behaviour changes.
  • Postpartum psychosis is different from the more common condition called postnatal depression.
  • You need to be diagnosed by a psychiatrist and usually you’ll need treatment in hospital with medicines.
  • After getting appropriate treatment, you’re likely to make a full recovery.

What is postpartum psychosis?

Postpartum psychosis is a rare but serious mental illness that can develop soon after you give birth, and can cause major changes in your mood and behaviour. If you think you (or someone you know) could have postpartum psychosis, it’s important to see a doctor without delay.

Postpartum psychosis (also called postnatal psychosis or puerperal psychosis) is a mental illness that can affect anyone who gives birth. You’re at greatest risk if you have bipolar disorder or if you have experienced postpartum psychosis before. But you can also develop postpartum psychosis even if you don’t have any history of mental illness. The condition can come on very suddenly — sometimes within hours after you give birth, although they may take a couple of months to appear.

The word ‘psychosis’ refers to a loss of sense of reality. If you have postpartum psychosis, you may see or hear things that are not there (hallucinations), feel everyone is against you (paranoia) and experience powerful delusions (beliefs that don’t match with reality).

If you have postpartum psychosis you will need specialised psychiatric treatment to get better.

Postpartum psychosis is not the same as postnatal depression. While postnatal depression affects more than 1 in 7 new mothers each year in Australia, postpartum psychosis is rare, affecting only about 1 or 2 in every 1,000 mothers.

What are the signs and symptoms of postpartum psychosis?

Postpartum psychosis causes significant changes to your mood and behaviour. Your mood may become manic (lots of energy and racing thoughts), psychotic (an altered sense of reality) and/or you may feel depressed (low energy and mood).

Your symptoms may include:

  • extreme sudden mood swings
  • being aggressive, violent or agitated
  • speaking in a disordered or nonsensical way, and finding it hard to concentrate
  • feeling paranoid, having irrational or delusional thoughts or beliefs
  • having hallucinations and changes in sense perception (like smelling, hearing or seeing things that are not there)
  • not being able to sleep, sometimes for days
  • responding in an unusual or inappropriate way towards your baby
  • thinking of or planning to harm yourself or your baby

Symptoms of postpartum psychosis usually start to show in the first week or 2 after you’ve given birth, although they may take up to 12 weeks to appear.

If you notice these changes in yourself, or someone close to you, it’s important you seek professional help. See your GP, local hospital emergency department, or call a support service such as the ForWhen helpline or one of the others listed at the end of this article.

How is postpartum psychosis diagnosed?

Postpartum psychosis is a very serious mental illness that is diagnosed by a psychiatrist. If your doctor thinks you may have postnatal psychosis, they may admit you to hospital for psychiatric assessment and care.

How is postpartum psychosis treated?

Postpartum psychosis is treatable. After getting the necessary treatment, you are likely to make a full recovery.

To begin with, you will most likely need to go to hospital, where you will be safe, and doctors can monitor you closely. This first phase of treatment can take weeks or months, depending on your symptoms and how well you respond to treatment. It will take time and further treatment for you to recover fully.

Treatment options for postpartum psychosis include:

  • Medications such as antidepressants, mood stabilisers, and antipsychotic medicines.
  • Ectroconvulsive therapy (a process that stimulates brain neurons with an electric current to treat mania, psychosis and severe depression). You might need this if your symptoms are severe, medicines alone are not working and your symptoms mean you’re at high risk (for example, if you are at risk of self-harm).
  • Psychological therapies, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).

How can I help my partner, family or friend if I think they might have postpartum psychosis?

If you suspect your partner or loved one is showing signs of postpartum psychosis, you may need to arrange urgent treatment. While this may be difficult, it is necessary. Both the mother and the baby could be at risk, and delaying treatment can make things more complex and mean recovery take longer.

If you or someone close to you is having thoughts of self-harm or you are worried for your baby’s safety, go to the nearest hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Where can I go for advice and support?

Experiencing or caring for someone during a mental health crisis can be frightening, but help is available 24 hours a day.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2022

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