“They ARE suffering. They are at the root of where suffering lies, in the head – and that is gruesome to watch.” This is how Dr Alain Gregoire, the psychiatrist in charge of a specialist mother and baby unit in Winchester, describes mental illnesses. And, he says, postpartum psychosis – psychosis that develops in women after childbirth – is “the most severe illness we see in psychiatry”.
Dr Gregoire’s unit is the setting of My Baby, Psychosis and Me, a raw, powerful BBC1 film depicting the impact of postpartum psychosis on mothers and their families. It follows two women undergoing treatment at the unit: Hannah, who is admitted three months after the birth of her first child, and Jenny, who developed symptoms just six weeks after having her second baby.
Millions have been watching Stacey Branning (Lacey Turner) struggle with the illness on EastEnders; this storyline and the documentary are both part of the BBC’s In the Mind season, which begun yesterday [Monday 15 Feb], and which aims to improve our understanding of mental health.
Turner’s portrayal of postpartum psychosis – which causes paranoia, delusions, extremes of emotion, depression, even suicidal thoughts – has been widely praised, but to see Hannah and Jenny’s very real suffering is something else entirely. It is difficult to watch at times, so must have been unspeakably difficult for them and their families to experience.
For the women to allow themselves to be filmed while in their grip of illness is a remarkably brave thing to do. Because mental health is, if no longer a taboo subject, then certainly an unpopular and challenging one. People struggle to admit that they are suffering, for fear of how others will see them – because they worry they will be misunderstood, rejected, or seen as “mental”, faulty, weak.
But the truth could not be more different. Hannah and Jenny want desperately to be better for their babies, for their partners; their strength, the huge effort they are making to be well again, is evident.
As someone who has had their own mental health problems, I know films like this one are so important. As well as showing how mental illness can happen so easily to anyone, it also demonstrates how disabling it can be, and will hopefully encourage empathy and understanding, not dismissal, or even fear.
Though a woman with postpartum psychosis rarely poses a threat to her baby, she can be a danger to herself, which means appropriate care is a matter of life and death. Despite its severity, women often make a full recovery – like all mental illnesses, it does not have to mean the ruin or end of a life.
Fortunately, Hannah and Jenny do get the specialist care they need, but 80 per cent of women with postpartum psychosis do not. This film, and the BBC’s In the Mind season as a whole, is an important first step in raising awareness and starting a vital conversation about mental health – but there is clearly so much more to be done.
My Baby, Psychosis and Me airs Tuesday at 10:45 p.m. on BBC1.