I recovered from postpartum psychosis: Here are 5 things I learned

mother holding child close up - recovered from postpartum psychosis ppp
Dasha Petrenko/Shutterstock

When my daughter was 3 months old, I was hospitalized with postpartum psychosis. After weeks of insomnia, panic attacks, and anxiety so strong it made the world look warped and distorted, I went to a psych ward, convinced that I was living one long hallucination.

Postpartum psychosis (PPP) is a serious condition that occurs in 3-6 out of every 1000 deliveries. Symptoms may include delusions, hallucinations, irritability, hyperactivity, mood swings and paranoia. I’d never had a mental health crisis before, but with many of these symptoms, I spent five days in a mental hospital and another month and a half in an intensive outpatient program. Luckily, with some good care, medication and therapy over the next several months, I started to come back to reality.

During my postpartum experience, I saw a real lack of resources and support for new moms, especially for those who were struggling. I had a PhD in philosophy, so I decided to use that training to start a Philosophical Coaching practice, to help moms grapple with what it means to make a human being.

In the six years since, I’ve shared my experience with hundreds of mothers and I’ve been part of their journeys as they navigate the huge shifts in identity, meaning, purpose and values that come with having a baby. I’ve also spent years attending conferences, talking to experts, reading, and trying to sort out what happened to me during my psychosis. I’m writing a book about it all, and here are five things I’ve learned.

5 things I learned after I recovered from postpartum psychosis

1. Postpartum psychosis does not mean you will hurt your kids

If you only learn about postpartum psychosis by what you see in the media, you might believe that any woman who experiences it is bound for a tragedy involving police sirens and yellow crime scene tape. While such tragedies are awful, they are extraordinarily rare and often salaciously sensationalized by the media.

For 95% of mothers experiencing PPP, the experience does not result in a death. Many mothers who are suffering with a perinatal mental health disorder (PMHD) experience “intrusive thoughts” in which they may see flashes of themselves harming their children, but most mothers find these thoughts scary and distressing, which is a signal that they are unlikely to carry them out.

2. Little is known about what causes PPP

During my postpartum psychosis experience, I kept waiting for a doctor, a therapist, someone to tell me why this had happened. I’d never had any previous serious mental health issues before. Was it hormones, sleep deprivation, family history, genes, lack of social support? Did a demon take over my body? When I asked these questions to medical and mental health practitioners, I often got the same shrug, head shake, and “we don’t know.”

Like lots of aspects of both women’s health and mental health, the causes of PPP are still not well understood, even by people studying it. In the end, I’ve had to surrender to the fact that I may never know why this happened to me.

3. You can fully recover from PPP

When I was pacing the kitchen at 3 in the morning, feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin, I needed to hear and read stories from people who’d been there and gotten better. I needed a scrap of hope that I would get better too.

And, indeed, like the vast majority of women who experience PPP, I made a complete recovery. It took medication, regular sleep, and a year of crying on a therapist’s couch, but eventually, one spring day, I walked out of my house, and smelled the fresh air, noticed the pink sunrise, and knew I was going to be OK.

A big part of my recovery was connecting with other PPP survivors, writing my story, and sharing it with others. This was not always easy, given that psychosis still comes with significant social stigma and shame, but research shows that integrating your story into your sense of self is an important part of recovering.

4. Social and institutional support helps

Like a lot of aspects of mental health, we often talk about incidents of postpartum psychosis in a way that focuses on individual patients. But the lack of federal paid family leave, federally subsidized child care, and community and social structures in the United States means that new parents often do the 24/7 round-the-clock childcare without much help, leading to increased stress, and, as new research suggests, increased rates of postpartum mood disorders, including psychosis. Research also shows that positive social support helps both in the prevention and treatment of these disorders.

Mental health is a social issue, and as a society, we need to do better to support mothers and families—particularly those affected by poverty, racism, and violence—so that all kids can grow up with physically and mentally healthy caretakers.

5. Don’t believe everything you think

One of the lasting lessons from my psychosis experience is that my brain can convince me of all sorts of wild things. Humans have an evolutionary negativity bias, and even a healthy postpartum brain is hypervigilant, with 95% of mothers displaying obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)-like symptoms in the weeks following birth. These evolutionary protections have helped us survive, but they also distort our vision of reality. Now, when I’m having scary thoughts—my kid has a little red mark on her face? She must have a flesh-eating rash—I find it helpful to try to meet them with some friendly doubt.

In the end, I’m actually incredibly grateful for my postpartum psychosis experience. It has made me a more empathetic and compassionate person, especially for those experiencing mental health hardships. At the time, it felt like I was dying. In a way, a version of me was, but I quite like the new version born in her place.

If you, or someone you love is struggling with postpartum psychosis, there is help. Contact your doctor, emergency crisis line, or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Postpartum Support International and Action on Postpartum Psychosis offer specialized PPP support groups and coordinators who can help connect you with resources.

I know this is scary, but you are not alone. I got better, and you can get better too.

Postpartum mental health resources

If you’re experiencing any postpartum mood symptoms, no matter how mild, know that help is available. Reach out to your healthcare provider about next steps and potential treatment options, such as more support at home, therapy or medication. If you’re in crisis, reach out to a crisis hotline or dial 988 or 911 for immediate support.

The phone numbers listed below are available 24/7 to help you with suicidal thoughts or other mental health crises.