puerperal psychosis

Postpartum psychosis

Postpartum psychosis or (also sometimes referred to as puerperal psychosis or postnatal psychosis), is a mental illness, which involves the rapid onset of psychotic symptoms in a woman following childbirth. Although sometimes confused with postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis is a different disorder and is much less common. Postpartum psychosis is also known as "postnatal stress disorder", because the patient is under emotional stress and exhibits unusual behavioral patterns not seen before their pregnancy or postpartum event. In clinical psychology it may also be diagnosed as a form of Brief Psychotic Disorder.

The majority of cases occur within the first 2–4 weeks after childbirth with a classic 10–14 day meltdown, likely caused by the radical hormonal changes combined with neurotransmitter overactivity. When correctly diagnosed at the earliest signs and immediately treated with anti-psychotic medication, the illness is recoverable within a few weeks. If undiagnosed, even for just a few days, it can take the woman months to recover. In cases of postpartum psychosis, the sufferer is often unaware that she is unwell.


Symptoms of postpartum psychosis can include:

  • Feelings of being ordered by God or a power outside of oneself to do things one would not normally do, like harming oneself or the baby
  • Feelings of intense confusion or agitation
  • Seeing or hearing things that others don't
  • Extreme highs or extreme lows of energy or mood
  • Inability to take care of the baby
  • Experiencing thoughts and feelings as being out of one's control
  • Memory lapses (periods of confusion similar to amnesia)
  • Random or uncontrollable anxiety attacks
  • Unintelligible speech or communication

Treatment and prognosis

Postpartum psychosis is treated as a serious psychiatric disorder. Prompt treatment can shorten the duration of the illness.

Whilst postpartum/puerperal psychosis is a serious psychiatric illness, the risks of a mother suffering this illness harming her baby are low: infanticide rates are estimated at 4%, and suicide rates in postpartum/puerperal psychosis are estimated at 5%.


Psychosis can also take place in combination with an underlying psychiatric disorder, such as bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia, or undiagnosed depression. In some women, a postpartum psychosis is the only psychotic episode they will ever experience, but, for others, it is just the first indication of a psychiatric disorder.

Only 1 to 2 women per 1,000 births (.1% to .2% of births) develop postpartum psychosis.

Notable cases

Andrea Yates

Andrea Yates methodically drowned her 5 children in a bathtub in her Clear Lake City, Houston, Texas house on June 20, 2001.

After the National Organization for Women (NOW) noted on their website that Andrea Yates had postpartum depression, the Individualist Feminists of Ifeminist.com quickly pointed out that Yates suffered from postpartum psychosis, a more serious and much less common disorder, and that the clinical definition of postpartum depression does not list infantcide as a symptom. After Ifeminist.com pointed out that this misrepresentation of Yates' illness stigmatized a large number of mothers and made them less likely to seek professional help for fear of being seen as a threat to their children and consequently being committed, NOW promptly revised their statement to include postpartum psychosis. Numerous media outlets alleged that Yates' minister, Michael Peter Woroniecki, bears some responsibility for the deaths, reporting that he and his wife built a framework of homicidal and suicidal delusions in Yates' impressionably ill mind through "relentless gloom and doom sermonizing. She had come to believe that she was a "bad mother" who was spiritually and behaviorally damaging her children, and that it was better to kill herself and her offspring rather than to allow them to continue "stumbling" and go to hell--a staple of her minister's teaching to parents found on his 1996 video, which the Yates both received from him and watched.

Melanie Blocker-Stokes

Melanie Blocker-Stokes, of Chicago, IL delivered a healthy baby girl in February 2001. In the weeks following the birth of her daughter, Ms. Blocker-Stokes developed postpartum psychosis and was in and out of Chicago area hospitals several times over period of a few months for medical assistance and care. Despite medical treatment and the support of her loving family and friends, Melanie Blocker-Stokes ended her life on June 11, 2001. Her death led to the proposal of the Melanie Blocker-Stokes Postpartum Depression Research and Care Act (H.R. 846 and S. 450), intended to expand research into the condition.


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