Dr. Lee S. Cohen, Director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently shared his insights on diagnosing and treating postpartum psychosis with Ob.Gyn News on January 30th, 2020

Although the last decade has brought appropriate increased interest in the diagnosis and treatment of postpartum depression, with screening initiatives across more than 40 states in place and even new medications being brought to market for treatment, far less attention has been given to diagnosis and treatment of a particularly serious psychiatric illness: postpartum psychosis.

Postpartum psychosis is relatively rare, with an incidence of 1 in 1,000 births, but it is one of the most serious complications of modern obstetrics. Clinically, women can experience rapid mood changes, most often with the presentation that is consistent with a manic-like psychosis, with associated symptoms of delusional thinking, hallucinations, paranoia and either depression or elation, or an amalgam of these so-called “mixed symptoms.” Onset of symptoms typically is early, within 72 hours as is classically described, but may have a somewhat later time of onset in some women.

Many investigators have studied risk factors for postpartum psychosis, and it has been well established that a history of mood disorder, particularly bipolar disorder, is one of the strongest predictors of risk for postpartum psychosis. Women with histories of postpartum psychosis are at very high risk of recurrence, with as many as 70%-90% of women experiencing recurrence if not prophylaxed with an appropriate agent. From a clinical point of view, women with postpartum psychosis typically are hospitalized, given that this is both a psychiatric and potential obstetrical emergency. In fact, the data would suggest that although postpartum suicide and infanticide are not common, they can be a tragic concomitant of postpartum psychosis (Am J Psychiatry. 2016 Dec 1;173[12]:1179-88).

A great amount of interest has been placed on the etiology of postpartum psychosis, as it’s a dramatic presentation with very rapid onset in the acute postpartum period. A rich evidence base with respect to an algorithm of treatment that maximizes likelihood of full recovery or sustaining of euthymia after recovery is limited. Few studies have looked systematically at the optimum way to treat postpartum psychosis. Clinical wisdom has dictated that, given the dramatic symptoms with which these patients present, most patients are treated with lithium and an antipsychotic medication as if they have a manic-like psychosis. It may take brief or extended periods of time for patients to stabilize. Once they are stabilized, one of the most challenging questions for clinicians is how long to treat. Again, an evidence base clearly informing this question is lacking.

Over the years, many clinicians have treated patients with postpartum psychosis as if they have bipolar disorder, given the index presentation of the illness, so some of these patients are treated with antimanic drugs indefinitely. However, clinical experience from several centers that treat women with postpartum psychosis suggests that in remitted patients, a proportion of them may be able to taper and discontinue treatment, then sustain well-being for protracted periods.

One obstacle with respect to treatment of postpartum psychosis derives from the short length of stay after delivery for many women. Some women who present with symptoms of postpartum psychosis in the first 24-48 hours frequently are managed with direct admission to an inpatient psychiatric service. But others may not develop symptoms until they are home, which may place both mother and newborn at risk.

Given that the risk for recurrent postpartum psychosis is so great (70%-90%), women with histories of postpartum psychosis invariably are prophylaxed with mood stabilizer prior to delivery in a subsequent pregnancy. In our own center, we have published on the value of such prophylactic intervention, not just in women with postpartum psychosis, but in women with bipolar disorder, who are, as noted, at great risk for developing postpartum psychotic symptoms (Am J Psychiatry. 1995 Nov;152[11]:1641-5.)

Although postpartum psychosis may be rare, over the last 3 decades we have seen a substantial number of women with postpartum psychosis and have been fascinated with the spectrum of symptoms with which some women with postpartum psychotic illness present. We also have been impressed with the time required for some women to recompensate from their illness and the course of their disorder after they have seemingly remitted. Some women appear to be able to discontinue treatment as noted above; others, particularly if there is any history of bipolar disorder, need to be maintained on treatment with mood stabilizer indefinitely.

To better understand the phenomenology of postpartum psychosis, as well as the longitudinal course of the illness, in 2019, the Mass General Hospital Postpartum Psychosis Project (MGHP3) was established. The project is conducted as a hospital-based registry where women with histories of postpartum psychosis over the last decade are invited to participate in an in-depth interview to understand both symptoms and course of underlying illness. This is complemented by obtaining a sample of saliva, which is used for genetic testing to try to identify a genetic underpinning associated with postpartum psychosis, as the question of genetic etiology of postpartum psychosis is still an open one.

As part of the MGHP3 project, clinicians across the country are able to contact perinatal psychiatrists in our center with expertise in the treatment of postpartum psychosis. Our psychiatrists also can counsel clinicians on issues regarding long-term management of postpartum psychosis because for many, knowledge of precisely how to manage this disorder or the follow-up treatment may be incomplete.

From a clinical point of view, the relevant questions really include not only acute treatment, which has already been outlined, but also the issue of duration of treatment. While some patients may be able to taper and discontinue treatment after, for example, a year of being totally well, to date we are unable to know who those patients are. We tend to be more conservative in our own center and treat patients with puerperal psychosis for a more protracted period of time, usually over several years. We also ask women about their family history of bipolar disorder or postpartum psychosis. Depending on the clinical course (if the patient really has sustained euthymia), we consider slow taper and ultimate discontinuation. As always, treatment decisions are tailored to individual clinical history, course, and patient wishes.

Postpartum psychosis remains one of the most serious illnesses that we find in reproductive psychiatry, and incomplete attention has been given to this devastating illness, which we read about periodically in newspapers and magazines. Greater understanding of postpartum psychosis will lead to a more precision-like psychiatric approach, tailoring treatment to the invariable heterogeneity of this illness.

Even as the COVID-19 vaccine initiative across the United States is rolled out, 2021 will continue to be a complicated time for women and families. We still need to be vigilant. In addition to screening for perinatal depression during pregnancy and the postpartum period, we should be equally mindful of screening and treating perinatal anxiety, particularly during this challenging time. The challenge to keep pregnant and postpartum women well is perhaps even greater now, 10 months into the pandemic, than it was when we were in crisis mode in March 2020. As clinicians, we need to mobilize the spectrum of both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatment options to sustain emotional well-being among women planning to conceive as well as those who are pregnant or postpartum as we navigate our way to safer times.

Dr. Cohen is the director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, 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 obnews@mdedge.com.

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