Warning: This post deals with topics of postnatal depression and postnatal psychosis and may be triggering for some readers.
I don’t dwell on what might have happened had I been sent home on day five after my daughter was born. But whenever the news throws up sensational stories reporting murder, infanticide, or suicide, and there is even a slim possibility the perpetrator might have been psychotic – then I think about it. Because that could have been me.
When our daughter was five days old I was two days away from being swallowed whole by my first psychotic episode. Thanks to luck and private health insurance, I wasn’t at home. My maternity midwife could see I wasn’t right on the day I was due to be discharged from the maternity hospital. Instead of being sent home I was referred to a private psychiatric hospital with a MBU (Mother Baby Unit). So, when it hit two days later I could be diagnosed with postnatal psychosis immediately, started on high dose anti-psychotic medication, and transferred to the hospital’s Special Care Unit (a high security locked ward), while my baby went home to be cared for by my husband and my mother.
For me, the postnatal psychosis also turned out to be the first episode of bipolar 1 disorder, but because I received the appropriate care at the right time, I recovered from that and subsequent episodes, and now lead a happy, highly functioning life.
But if I had had a less switched on midwife on duty that day, or no private health insurance – what do you think might have happened?
I would have gone home. I would still have been swallowed whole and lost touch with reality. My husband would have been there. But would he have noticed the seismic shifts occurring inside my head? Maybe. Maybe not. I couldn’t have communicated them to him because I was convinced the inside of my head represented reality, and this was a first episode, so I had no insight.
What if we ran out of milk or toilet paper? I can’t know for sure, but I suspect my husband would have deemed it safe to duck out to the shops. He might only have been gone fifteen minutes.
Watch: The facts on postnatal depression.
Had I been home with my baby daughter when my husband briefly left our house, I have no idea what the psychosis might have told me to do. But I do know I would have believed it and followed its instructions to the letter. Not because I am stupid, immoral, or monstrous. But because I had a severe illness that had gobbled up my free will, my beliefs, my logic, my opinions, my normal emotions, and my knowledge of the world. My husband may well have come home from the shops to a scene no one should ever come home to. And I would have been cheap fodder for the headlines.
I don’t disclose any of this to make you uncomfortable. I disclose it because I am fed up with not having a voice. I am fed up with main-stream journalism not representing the truth for most of the brave, resilient, human beings who live with the threat of psychosis, bear its scars, or who have lost lives to it.
Our media LOVE the ‘Crazed Killer’ narrative. There’s an element to reporting psychosis, or even worse omitting that undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, poorly managed, or untreated psychosis may have been the cause of the crime. It’s the modern-day equivalent of locking up the insane in cages and charging money for the public to come and gawk at them.
Recently, an allegedly nineteen-year-old psychotic young man, accused of three murders, was sent into a court room without any legal representation and reported to have ‘defied’ the judge’s advice to remain silent. The journalists in that court room lapped up that ‘defiance’ like cats would a bowl of cream. They had no hesitation in recording and releasing every jumbled sentence he uttered at a time when he was still clearly very unwell.
This happens firstly because it is boring to report that lives were lost because someone didn’t get the appropriate health care they needed for a life-threatening illness. The second reason the media gets away with it is because the people they allocate the ‘Crazed Killer’ narrative to are dehumanised and broken, not just by their illness but by that narrative.
When we are psychotic we are in no position to stand up for ourselves.
And in the aftermath of psychosis we are still extremely vulnerable. Re-entry into the real world is rough and soul-destroying. It is a punch to the gut to realise that everything you thought was true and real was not. You enter a profoundly destabilising time when you feel as though you can’t trust any of your thoughts. And that is without having committed a crime while you were critically ill.
However, we are not completely powerless. The media is driven by what the consumer wants. If we want these stories reported differently, we need to start discussing them differently.
The next time the term ‘Psychotic Killer’ or something similar is splashed all over the news, try doing this:
Tell people that you know someone who has been psychotic.
You can introduce me as Anita, a blogger whose posts you sometimes read, as a mum who has kids at the same school as yours, as your vet, as someone you heard on the radio once giving an interview about her experience with a severe mental illness. You can introduce me as a mental health advocate and SANE Peer ambassador. You can introduce me as a friend who loves to throw a good dinner party, as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, daughter in law, sister in law, or however you like.
And once you’ve introduced me, tell the person you are talking to:
‘Anita could have been that person in the news, if she had not had great luck and private health insurance.’
Even if you choose to talk to no one, there is something you can do:
When your screens flash flood with these horrific stories and you crave a villain, rather than being spoon-fed a sensational narrative, look at the source of your information, and then ask yourself if it addresses these questions thoroughly:
What went wrong?
Where did our society and the way we talk about psychotic mental illness fail this person?
Where and how did our mental health system fail this person and their family?
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Should the survival of our most critically mentally ill, and the people they interact with, be means dependent or down to luck?
If what you are reading or watching doesn’t give you the answers, then you do not get to judge the perpetrator by the headline.
If you or someone you know is currently experiencing symptoms of psychosis, please contact your primary mental health care provider, hospital emergency department, or ambulance service immediately. Psychosis is a psychiatric emergency, but with rapid diagnosis and appropriate treatment, can be managed very successfully.
SANE Australia also provides support and factual information for those suffering psychotic mental illness and their families. You can find their fact sheet on psychosis here.