The last 15 years have brought increased effort to screen for postpartum psychiatric illness. That’s exceedingly welcome given the morbidity and potential mortality associated with postpartum psychiatric disorders across the country.
From small community hospitals to major academic centers, screening for postpartum depression is part of the clinical fabric of routine obstetrical care. There is a growing appreciation for the complexity of perinatal psychiatric illness, particularly with respect to the commingling of both mood and anxiety disorders during the postpartum period. However, willingness to treat and appreciation of the urgency to treat with both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic interventions can vary. For women who suffer from postpartum depression and their families, there are real-world implications of both treating and failing to treat this illness, and there is an urgent need to really help these women “climb out of the darkness” that is and defines postpartum depression.
Less common but of great clinical importance is postpartum psychosis, which occurs in approximately 1 in 1,000-2,000 women based on estimates from several studies. As noted inthe presentation is a dramatic one, with the typical onset of psychotic symptoms in the first days to weeks post partum. The disorder typically has a mood component and is not an exacerbation of underlying chronic psychotic illness. While there have been few systematic treatment studies, the clinical consensus is treatment usually includes hospitalization to ensure the safety of both the patient and infant. Use of medications, including mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and benzodiazepines may be appropriate when expeditious treatment is needed.
Appropriate treatment by informed clinical staff is essential, as untreated or incompletely treated postpartum psychosis with its attendant morbidity and potential mortality is a very real concern. As Iwith women across the country with histories of postpartum psychosis, I’m often told of the difficult exchanges that women and their partners have at EDs in various clinical settings where diagnosis was delayed, or treatment was incomplete because of staff without expertise in postpartum psychosis management.
Another dilemma that patients and clinicians face after acute treatment is treatment duration, which is derived from how we conceptualize the illness. Even for experts in the area, there is not a consensus on whether postpartum psychosis should be considered as bipolar disorder or whether it is a circumscribed diagnostic entity. This issue has been hotly debated for many years and is one of the reasons why the illness is not included in the DSM classification system.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, we are systematically studying a large cohort of women with histories of postpartum psychosis as part of theto better understand the phenomenology of postpartum psychosis, and also to understand the possible genomic underpinning of the illness. Most recently, we are conducting a neuroimaging study of women with histories of postpartum psychosis, compared with women in a healthy control group. We hope the results of this novel investigation will help to answer whether there is a neural signature identifiable with neuroimaging techniques such as functional MRI, if those findings are similar to other findings of neural circuitry we see in other forms of psychotic illness, or if the illness has a more distinct neural signature.
A question patients and colleagues often ask is what is the long-term nature of postpartum psychosis. If one considers it clearly to be bipolar disorder, the most intuitive approach would be long-term treatment with mood stabilizers. We now have a growing amount of data on the longitudinal course of postpartum psychosis. In one meta-analysis, 64% of women who had an episode of postpartum psychosis developed episodes of recurrent psychiatric disorder mostly consistent with bipolar illness. However, 36% of women appear to have more circumscribed illness without recurrence. In those women with recurrent disease, the presumption was those patients who had bipolar disorder and their presentation postpartum was simply their index episode of bipolar illness. However, there were other women who looked as if they had developed subsequent illness over the 11-26 years of follow-up, and those women did not receive long-term treatment.
A more recent prospective study of 106 women with postpartum psychosis who had their medication tapered and discontinued showed that 32% of women went on to have recurrent disease with a median time to illness of 20.3 months, and those patients presented primarily with illness that looked like bipolar disorder.
These accumulating data support the impression we’ve had for years that there’s a very strong relationship between bipolar disorder and postpartum psychiatric illness. Regardless of what side of the debate you fall on, the acute treatment is really the same. The real question for the clinician is what to do over the long term. Frequently, patients feel very strongly about a taper and discontinuation of medicine, and even the data show between 30% and 45% of women seem to have relatively circumscribed disease. There may be an issue in terms of prophylaxis if a patient gets pregnant and delivers another child, but that’s a separate issue. The issue is really whether there is a way to “thread the clinical needle” and meet patients where they are who do not want to continue long-term treatment.
I think we are at a point where we could argue the clinical treatment algorithm for patients who present with a new-onset manic-like psychosis postpartum is clear: initial treatment to stabilize, and then treatment with mood stabilizers for at least 12 months to follow is indicated. However, it may also be reasonable to taper treatment at 12-18 months, particularly for patients who have discussed this option with their clinician and who have been totally well for a year. (Women with previously documented bipolar disorder who have episodes of postpartum psychosis should obviously be treated with longer-term treatment aimed at maintenance of euthymia, as discontinuation of mood stabilizer is well known to be associated with risk for relapse.)
It should be noted that the longitudinal course and the treatment implications for women with postpartum psychosis are not etched in stone absent a clear evidence base driving care guidelines. Treatment must still be individualized. Women with underlying mood diatheses will typically declare themselves over time, and others may do well if they discontinue treatment, particularly if they are followed closely and instructed to present to a clinician at the earliest symptoms of mood dysregulation. The good news is we’ve seen an evolution of both interest and expertise in acute management of postpartum psychosis and a richer appreciation of the potential heterogeneity of this sample of women. There may be some variability in terms of long-term course requiring personalized treatment and obviously close follow-up of these women.
is the director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, which provides information resources and conducts clinical care and research in reproductive mental health. He has been a consultant to manufacturers of psychiatric medications. Email Dr. Cohen at