Trigger warning: this article contains mention of suicide and psychotic episodes.
She grew up playing with my daughter. I can still see her squinting in the sunlight to smile at the camera. As a young adult, she joined the Marines, fell in love with a fellow Marine and was honourably discharged after an injury. Then she got pregnant.
Last year this time, she died by suicide, leaving behind her baby. She seemed to have so much going for her, including a new house, and a Master’s degree she was working on.
Her family knew she had been feeling depressed, but she was seeing a therapist about it. The day before her life ended, she mentioned having thoughts of harming her baby. Nobody thought much of it – she was in talk therapy after all.
After her death stories emerged of how she saw demonic floating heads and heard voices.
Her death, like the deaths of so many this year including at least 13 children, is a clarion call for work that we as a postpartum community still need to do.
For decades, we have not hesitated about including reminders about the 1 in 1000 risk of developing a blood clot in the postpartum period. And yet, we fail to inform new parents about the 1-2 in 1000 risk of developing postpartum psychosis. This makes no sense considering what’s at stake – the lives of mothers and the lives of their children. We need to actively start campaigning that the literature families receive after giving birth includes the risks of developing postpartum psychosis.
We also need to ensure that we create awareness of how important it is to take bizarre behaviour in the postpartum period seriously. Bizarre behaviour or speech may be the only outward sign families may see in a loved one suffering from postpartum psychosis. This is especially the case for women who choose to keep their hallucinations and delusions to themselves. Efforts around this don’t even need to be particularly fancy to make the point. Consider what Action on Postpartum Psychosis, a charity group in the UK, did with a simple campaign that asks: New mum seems strange? Seek help. It could be PP [postpartum psychosis], a treatable medical emergency.
Although it’s amazing that organizations have started heeding the calls of postpartum psychosis survivors to stop calling the condition rare, it is simply not enough. It is true and important for people to know that the vast majority of cases of postpartum psychosis are bipolar-based and occur in those with underlying bipolar disorder. But it is also key to acknowledge another uncomfortable truth: those suffering from severe untreated postpartum depression can also develop psychotic features to their condition.
As a society, we fail all mothers and families when we minimize the real risks of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.
Let’s stop wasting precious time and opportunities to educate people about postpartum psychosis. It’s about time we stop diminishing its existence and acknowledge it – uncomfortable truths and all.
Because I for one, don’t want to fail any more young mothers.
Permission was obtained from family for the use of this young woman’s story for this article.
About Hajara Kutty: Hajara Kutty is an educator, Muslim mental health advocate and a Support Coordinator with Postpartum Support International.