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Postpartum Bipolar Disorder: The Invisible Postpartum Mood Disorder

Postpartum Bipolar Disorder: The Invisible Postpartum Mood Disorder

By Dyane Leshin-Harwood

July 13, 2016
for the Postpartum Support International Blog

Bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and postpartum psychosis have recently made media headlines. Katie Holmes stars as a lovestruck poet with bipolar disorder in the film Touched with Fire. The British hit television show EastEnders featured a postpartum psychosis storyline that gained national attention. Last January in a landmark decision, the U.S. Preventative Task Force called for screening for depression during and after pregnancy.

While the greater awareness of postpartum mood disorders is promising, postpartum bipolar disorder, the mood disorder I was diagnosed with, is virtually unheard of. Postpartum bipolar is also known as bipolar, peripartum onset, and it’s arguably the least known of the six postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.

It might seem unimportant to publicize an obscure mood disorder, but every mom’s postpartum experience counts. Many medical professionals are unaware that postpartum bipolar exists. Some postpartum and bipolar organizations are unfamiliar with postpartum bipolar or they’re unclear about its definition. When I was pregnant, my obstetrician didn’t question me about my mental health or my family’s mental health history. My father had bipolar disorder, but before and during my pregnancy I didn’t show any signs of mental illness.

When I went into labor, my life changed overnight.

We went to the hospital and I stayed up all night in pain. When my daughter Marilla was born the next day, I became hypomanic. I was exuberant and talkative (both signs of hypomania), but I appeared relatively normal. My baby attracted most of the attention, and no one noticed that I was in trouble. Exhausted, I sensed something was off, but I kept my fearful feelings inside.

Within forty-eight hours I had hypergraphia, a rare condition in which one compulsively writes. I wrote at every opportunity, even during breastfeeding, when I should’ve been resting and focusing on my baby. I could barely sleep as my mania escalated, and poor Marilla didn’t gain enough weight because I didn’t breastfeed her sufficiently.

A month postpartum, I knew I was manic; after all, I had witnessed mania in my dad. I frantically searched the internet about postpartum mania, but my search only yielded postpartum psychosis statistics. During Marilla’s six-week checkup, her observant pediatrician heard my racing voice and pressured speech (symptoms of bipolar) and blurted, “Dyane, I think you’re manic!”

I burst into tears. While I felt ashamed, I was relieved that he realized what was happening. It was clear I needed hospitalization, but leaving my newborn was agonizing. I admitted myself into a hospital’s psychiatric unit where I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder.

After years of hospitalizations, medication trials, and electroconvulsive (ECT) therapy, I’m stable and doing well. While bipolar disorder ravages many relationships, my husband and I have stayed together, in part, thanks to the guidance of counselors and psychiatrists. Life will always be a challenge, but my two daughters inspire me to take care of myself.

While the chance of developing postpartum bipolar is low, it can affect any mother. Obstetrician and Perinatal Mental Health Lead Dr. Raja Gangopadhyay of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, UK, explains, “The risk of developing new-onset severe mental illness is higher in early post-childbirth period than any other time in women’s life. Family history, pre-existing mental health conditions, traumatic birth experience and sleep deprivation could be potential risk factors. Bipolar illness can present for the first time during this period. Accurate diagnosis is the key to the recovery.”

Confusion abounds regarding postpartum bipolar and postpartum psychosis. While the two conditions can present together, postpartum bipolar isn’t always accompanied by postpartum psychosis. Perinatal psychologist Shoshana Bennett Ph.D., co-author of the bestselling classic Beyond the Blues: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression and Anxiety says, “Many women I’ve worked with had been previously misdiagnosed with postpartum depression. I always make a point of discussing this during my presentations. In addition, postpartum bipolar disorder deserves its own category separate from postpartum psychosis.”

Mental health screening during pregnancy would be of immense value to every mom. Women with a family history of bipolar disorder could be observed postpartum, and if symptoms manifested they’d be treated immediately. It’s imperative that doctors and other caregivers assess women not only for postpartum depression but also bipolar symptoms.

Everyone who lives with a stigmatized illness deserves a chance to find support and empathy from others who understand her experience. Through connecting with those who can relate to our mood disorder, we may not find a magic cure, but virtual support can be profoundly helpful. Postpartum Support International recently created online support groups in English and Spanish led by trained facilitators, while the Postpartum Progress website offers moms a private forum to interact with one another.

I’ve never personally met another mom who has postpartum bipolar disorder and I yearn to do so. If you or someone you know is or might be suffering with postpartum bipolar disorder, please reach out — I’d love to hear from you!


Dyane Leshin-Harwood photo

Dyane Leshin-Harwood holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz. A freelance writer for over two decades, she has interviewed luminaries including Madeleine L’Engle, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, and SARK. Dyane was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder (bipolar, peripartum onset) in 2007. Dyane was selected as an International Bipolar Foundation Story of Hope and Recovery, and a PsychCentral Mental Health Hero. She’s raising her daughters Avonlea and Marilla with her husband Craig and serves as a women’s postpartum mental health advocate. Dyane founded the Santa Cruz, California chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and facilitates free support groups for moms with mood disorders. She’s a member of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders and Postpartum Support International. Dyane’s memoir Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder will be published by Post Hill Press in 2017. Dyane is a Huffington Post blogger. Her own blog Birth of a New Brain is at www.proudlybipolar.wordpress.com and Twitter: @birthofnewbrain


11 Responses to “Postpartum Bipolar Disorder: The Invisible Postpartum Mood Disorder”

  1. Dyane Harwood

    Thank you so much, PSI, for sharing my experience with postpartum bipolar disorder/bipolar, peripartum onset.

    I’m honored that my article (which was initially selected by Arianna Huffington for my debut in The Huffington Post) is now a part of the PSI blog. I couldn’t ask for it to be in a more acclaimed, cutting-edge organization’s blog than PSI, which is the best, and I’m a very proud PSI member!

    Thanks again for your encouragement and support.


    Dyane Leshin-Harwood

  2. Lita


    Thank you for sharing your story! So important, so well done!

    Lita Simanis

  3. Dyane Harwood

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post & write, Lita!

    Your comment made my day :))))


    Dyane Harwood

  4. Lacey

    When something feels wrong, it normally is. After giving birth to my twins I was so depressed that I felt as though I could not continue on and this was not me. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder the invisible PP syndrome. I started medication and soon enough I finally remembered what a normal day was and that the irritability and dark cloud was lifted off my shoulders.
    Take action you are not in the right state of mind to make decisions get help and be honest, there is light at the end of the tunnel for you I promise.

  5. MISSY

    I am looking for help. My baby girl just turned 1. I need help and my regular Dr thinks I’m fime, but I’m not. My husband told me tonight he fears I’m bipolar. Please contact me about where I can go for help. Desperate momma of 2 girls.

  6. Emily

    WOW! It has been nearly eight years since this happened to me and I am just now finding out what it’s called, that it’s a real illness, that really happens to moms sometimes after giving birth. (I had children before and after, but I “snapped” after this particularly painful birth.) There is mental illness in my family but I did not expect this to happen to me. Finally, I am getting answers, and help. My marriage has suffered but we are together still because my husband doesn’t believe in “the d-word” as he calls it and he is very patient and has the heart of a servant. I wish I had known about this sooner and not been afraid to reach out and get help. Thank you so very much for sharing this story.

  7. Wendy Davis

    Hello Missy — we sent you an email and will help you find the help you need.

  8. Suzie law

    Wow, this information needs to be taught to every gynecologist. This can be used as preventative measures or quicker treatment and recovery. The day after I had my second child, it was like someone flipped a switch in my brain. It began with panic attacks (which I had never experienced anything like this). I was put on Zoloft the same week and told by my family physician that I had postpartum depression. The Zoloft helped with the panic attacks, thus came the depression. It was severe!! I was in fear at all times that I was on the verge of going crazy. I was told that this would gradually resolve itself within 3-4 months, but when that time came, it was still there. For 7 years I endured being passed around this doctors office from him to multiple PA’s in an effort that one of them could figure me out. I finally advocated for myself and sought out a highly recommended psychiatrist. It wasn’t long at all until I was diagnosed with bipolar 2. To think that all of those years could have been avoided with a correct diagnosis. Those years were torturous and damaging to me and those around me. I would never wish this upon my worst enemy. Knowledge is power and power gives you the ability to make positive decisions. This information has to be common knowledge because there is no excuse any longer for delayed treatment.
    Thank you for sharing your story!!

  9. Enid Teo

    Hi. I am mum of two girls aged 9 and 6. Thanks for your sharing. During the birth of my first child, I went through mania and depressive state, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Am glad after reading your blog, it tells me, I am not alone . And I was not MAD. This was from Singapore.

  10. Elle

    I labored for four days at my son’s home birth. Then after he was born I couldn’t sleep, for a week I slept no more than a few hours in half hour bursts. I felt as though I were in a state of emergency, but also euphoria. I was racing all day in thought, hardly sitting down or eating. I knew it was weird. Every evening around six I would burst into tears. No one ever diagnosed me with anything more than depression, which I also had before my pregnancy. I still struggle with mood swings and ADHD symptoms. I found your article while googling my symptoms.

  11. Evalea Mathias

    I suffered from this same condition that did not present itself until i was 3 months postpartum. It was racing thoughts, obsessive thoughts, bouts of anxiety and irritation. I could not sleep and was exhausted. I ended up being hospitalized and misdiagnosed. I went on having horrible symptoms for the next 4 months before I got diagnosed and 6 months before i found medication that worked. It was a total nightmare, i had suicidal and infacidal thoughts I was in a constant state of fear and terror wondering if I was going to snap a nd hurt myself or my child. This was the most terrifying time in my life.

Postpartum Support International.