What is postpartum psychosis? As Adele gives support to her best friend

14th Aug 18 | Lifestyle

The singer praised pal Laura Dockrill for having the courage to speak out about her struggle with the mental illness.

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Postnatal depression, also known as the ‘baby blues’, is really common -affecting more than 1 in 10 women giving birth each year.

But in rarer cases, mothers can experience what’s known as ‘postpartum psychosis’, a serious mental illness that can get rapidly worse if it’s not treated immediately.

Proving that mental illness can affect anyone – famous or not – singer Adele has thrown a spotlight on the condition after she posted a message of support to her best friend who’s recovering from it.

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Adele has spoken out about the condition (Ian West/PA Wire)

Laura Dockrill, who gave birth to the singer’s godson earlier in the year, shared a blog post about her experience with an episode of postpartum psychosis, triggered by a difficult labour, which she says she can “only describe as hell”.

Adele responded to the post by sharing a picture of the pals and writing that her story, which she shared in her Instagram bio, is “intimate and heartbreaking”.

Adele wrote: “This is my best friend. We have been friends for more of our lives than we haven’t.

“She had my beautiful godson 6 months ago and it was the biggest challenge of her life in more ways than one.

“She has written the most intimate, witty, heartbreaking and articulate piece about her experience of becoming a new mum and being diagnosed with postpartum psychosis.

“Mamas talk about how you’re feeling because in some cases it could save yours or someone else’s life x.”

While most mothers will be prepared for the mild mood changes that often follow childbirth, postpartum psychosis is something that many of us are still in the dark about.

Now charities have praised Adele for drawing new mums’ attention to how and why the condition occurs as, while it is rare, it can put the mother at risk of harming herself or her baby.

I used to hate this photograph of me and had it hidden away with all the other baby stuff I didn’t want to look at but now I love it because it shows I survived. This week my baby turns 6 months old and I feel like it’s an achievement in more ways than one. I don’t usually do oversharing on social media (I’ve covered over my boobies here rather professionally as you can see for my dignity- not that I have much of that dignity stuff left anyway after the last 6 months and YES my nail varnish is chipped but if you had to change 15 nappies a day and have your arms elbow deep in washing up liquid your nails would be pretty chipped too and who gets a chance to paint their nails with a baby splodging around the place anyway?) but the more I’ve spoken about this experience AKA the WORST TIME OF MY ACTUAL LIFE the more I’ve realised the urgency of writing about it. More women and their partners have opened up with their own experiences that have just felt too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it. It’s not easy to admit that the worst time of your life was when your baby was born. Social media gives a very shiny exterior of life to be frank and it’s not the full picture, so I wanted to unlock some doors and be honest- I’ve been somewhere I can’t unsee and- in case there is anybody out there struggling – to open up a dialogue and say it’s ok. You are not broken… Alrighty… I’m gonna be brave…so here we go… I have teamed up with @clemmie_telford to share my story (link in bio) There are a few thank yous I have to do to those starting with my true love @hugowhitenoise, my one and only spirit sister @adele, my baby love E.T @daisymaydock, my amazing parents and their partners, my partners family, my brother @hdurkle @sioby11 @pennygabriel @victoriabuzzington @el_matthews_ @annekaharry @thesabrinagrant @ssoufian @robertemmsactor @wesleygoode and my publishers @jennyjacoby @tinamories Love you all so much. You saved my life.

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Here, we explain everything that you need to know.

What is postpartum psychosis?

Postpartum Psychosis (PP) is a severe mental illness that occurs in the period after childbirth. Many people falsely think that it only happens to women with a history of mental health issues, but it can happen ‘out of the blue’ to women without any previous experience of anxiety, depression or psychosis.

That being said, there are some groups of women who are at a higher risk, such as those with a history of bipolar disorder. The symptoms usually begin in the first few days or weeks after childbirth, and can rapidly get worse if they aren’t treated immediately. As such, PP is classified as a medical emergency, with most women needing to be admitted to hospital.

According to Action on Postpartum Psychosis, over 1400 women experience PP each year in the UK (that’s 1 to 2 of every 1000 mothers).

Women with PP usually make a full recovery following treatment, although the experience can be frightening and disorientating. If you have postpartum psychosis, you may not realise you’re ill, so it’s important that friends and family take action if they spot the signs.

What are the symptoms?

The NHS says that symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, a loss of inhibitions and feeling suspicious or fearful.

One of the biggest tell-tale signs is changes in mood; a mother may swing from mania – feeling ‘high’ and talking quickly – to low mood, where she shows signs of depression, being withdrawn or tearful, lacking energy, feeling anxious and having trouble sleeping.

Other symptoms include restlessness, confusion and behaving in a way that is out of character.

In her blog post, Dockrill says she personally suffered with: “Mania, mood swings, insomnia, delusions, paranoia, anxiety, severe depression, with a lovely side order of psychosis.”

She writes: “I didn’t recognise myself and I felt like an intruder in my own life, like a fraud and a complete failure.

“People suggested I had the baby blues but this wasn’t crying a bit too much […] I’ll just put it bluntly – I was suicidal, I would lie in bed begging my mum to let me go, I don’t even know how she dealt with that.

“I thought I was going to hurt myself in some horrendous way and I was doing everything to try and avoid that, plus I didn’t want my family to see me crumble away before their eyes and watch me turn into an anxious wreck.

“I started getting severe anxiety attacks believing I was having a heart attack, that my stitches would split in the night, that my baby was going to die because he was so small and if I didn’t feed him 24/7 it would be all my fault. That I was a terrible person and an awful mother.”

How is it treated?

Most women need to be treated in hospital. Usually, this would be with your baby in a specialist psychiatric mother and baby unit (MBU), although you may be admitted to a general psychiatric ward until an MBU is available.

The NHS advises seeing a GP immediately if you think you or a family member may be suffering with PP, and if the person is in danger of imminent harm, call 999 or go to A&E.

Please please read this extraordinary list from @lauraleedockrill on the amazing @clemmie_telford's Mother of All Lists blog. It captures in such incredible detail and honesty exactly what it means to suffer from postpartum psychosis… On Saturday I found out a good mum chum of mine had tragically lost her battle with PPP in the most terrible and lonely way and I've been left feeling utterly 💔. When this post popped up on my feed, my heart jumped into my stomach and I'm sat here typing with goosebumps. I've been struggling to understand what happened, reconcile with the reality of our loss and the scale of fear and isolation that my friend must have been feeling. Thank you from the bottom of my heart @lauraleedockrill for sharing your story and huge congratulations on doing so amazingly. We need to speak about this terrible illness much more so we can save more mothers, wives, sisters and friends. #lauradockrill #motherofalllists #clemmietelford #postpartumpsychosis #newmums #motherhood

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In her blog post, Dockrill described “the worst night of her life”, where her family made the potentially life-saving decision to hospitalise her.

“My psychosis took a dark turn,” she writes. “I still can’t exactly work out what exactly happened or what form it took on, all I know is I was completely terrified, lost, confused and scared for myself and my son and that I didn’t trust ANYBODY – I even accused Hugo of kidnapping our baby.

“After my intervention – which was the worst night of my life – I was hospitalised for 2 weeks away from my son, bleeding from birth, breasts leaking milk and fully out of my head.”

There are a number of ways that medical experts treat postpartum psychosis, depending on the severity of the case. The first is medication – a mother may be prescribed antidepressants, antipsychotics or mood stabilisers to help ease the symptoms.

As recovery continues, your GP may refer you to a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a talking therapy that helps you manage negative thoughts by changing the way you think and behave.

In very rare cases, the NHS says that you may be referred for Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). This is a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in patients to provide relief from mental disorders. You may have this therapy if your symptoms are particularly severe – for example, if you have severe depression or mania.

The good news is that most women with postpartum psychosis make a full recovery with the right treatment. After six months, Dockrill says she is feeling herself again.

“Now with the support of my family, an incredible psychiatrist, medication (which I really hated the idea of taking but now recognise them, for me, as necessary and I am grateful to whoever invented them) and psychotherapy I am healed and recovering more and more each day,” Dockrill writes.

“I am happy, confident and strong. I am myself […] I had to prioritise getting better so that I could be a good mum and that meant doing whatever I needed to do to get well like trust strangers, trust a whole host of meds with horrible side effects like weight gain, tiredness, grogginess.”

The NHS say that the most severe symptoms tend to last 2 to 12 weeks, and it can take 6 to 12 months or more to recover from the condition.

An episode of postpartum psychosis is sometimes followed by a period of depression, anxiety and low confidence, and it might take new mums a while to come to terms with what happened.

There are lots of charities that can help mothers on their journey to recovery, like Mind, APP and Association for Post Natal Illness.

“It’s not easy to admit that the worst time of your life was when your baby was born,” says Dockrill. “Social media gives a very shiny exterior of life to be frank, and it’s not the full picture, so I wanted to unlock some doors and be honest.

“I’ve been somewhere I can’t unsee and – in case there is anybody out there struggling – to open up a dialogue and say it’s OK. You are not broken.“

© Press Association 2018