By Alison Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Midwifery and Kim Moore, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health, Birmingham City University.

We learned this week that EastEnders character Stacey Branning is to face a difficult Christmas as TV bosses announced that she will suffer from postpartum psychosis following the birth of her second child. Stacey who already has bipolar disorder, will begin to develop symptoms in the weeks that follow the birth.

To begin with we must congratulate EastEnders on raising awareness of the condition. Whilst less common than postnatal depression – postpartum psychosis affects thousands of women in the UK annually.

So what do we know about postpartum psychosis?

Many women in the UK experience normal mood swings following the birth of their baby. Women may often become tearful, and feel frustrated and tired, all of which are very common when getting used to a new baby.

However, for some these feelings can become increasingly severe and persistent.

Postpartum psychosis is often characterised by a sudden onset of symptoms following the birth – usually within the first two weeks. Symptoms may include persistent feelings of elation, episodes of confusion, hallucinations and delusions.

When things get extreme, as we might see in Stacey’s case, there are signs of very erratic behaviour and possible neglect of themselves and the baby. Sadly some cases have led to attempted suicides or deaths of mothers and babies.  These incidents are very acute and may occur within only a few days of the birth.

What are the causes and can it be prevented?

It’s important to remember that postpartum psychosis is not something to be ashamed of. It is not caused by something you and your partner or family members did, or did not do.

There may be underlying factors such as predisposition to mental health problems. For example, women who have an existing bipolar disorder, like Stacey Branning, are considered to be at greater risk. There may even be some association with post traumatic events, but generally it isn’t easy to determine which women will develop it and those who won’t.

The only thing we can do is to ensure women are monitored regularly by their midwife before and after birth, and any signs or symptoms picked up are addressed and the woman is referred to a professional.

Pre-birth, midwives may be alerted if there is a history of depression and if there are recognised symptoms of depression then they can be treated. Women who do suffer from depression must be seen by a doctor and will be advised that they should not stop taking their medication.

How might it affect your relationships?

While this is a devastating condition for the woman, who may feel isolated in their experience, what we sometimes forget is that postpartum psychosis also affects the people around her.

In the storyline, Stacey has a partner and another young child so it will be interesting to see how Stacey’s condition affects them. Family members all experience the symptoms of postpartum psychosis and it can be a confusing and stressful time for everyone.

It can be difficult for those who have never experienced mental health issues to understand. Family members may experience a whole host of emotions from anger and frustration, and initially they might not be able to spot that there is a problem.

The best way they can help is to support the woman and ensure she gets the medical attention she needs. What they shouldn’t do is get angry and apply blame if she is not able to care for herself and the baby. She can’t help it.

What are the treatment options?

If you suspect a loved one of having postpartum psychosis or are concerned in any way of their behaviour, then you should encourage them to see a health professional, whether it’s the midwife or the GP.

Treatment may involve counselling or behavioural therapy, or in more long term or severe cases medication may be required.

There are numerous support services for anyone who may have been affected, including Action on Postpartum Psychosis Network, MIND and Postpartum Progress.

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