I see my experience with postpartum psychosis reflected in Hollyoaks' Liberty

I had a really normal and happy pregnancy – it was only when I gave birth to my son that things started to go wrong for me.

I had a really difficult labour, which resulted in me being taken to hospital by ambulance and undergoing an emergency c-section.

Once my physical health was OK, I left hospital with my gorgeous baby boy, ready to start life as a new mum – but I quickly became really anxious and struggled to sleep.

My moods became really erratic and I became obsessed about the health of my newborn, worrying that I wasn’t able to breastfeed him properly, getting preoccupied with the temperature in the house. 

Then I started to hear whispers that weren’t really there – although I didn’t know that at the time.

I had no idea what was happening to me. My midwives noticed there was something wrong and sent me to see my GP but, at first, I thought this was all just part of being a new mum.

Eventually, I was referred to mental health services but I was so afraid of having my baby taken away if I told them of the whispers and paranoia that I kept much of it to myself. They thought I had depression.

Sent home once again, my condition reached a crisis point. After finding me awake in the middle of the night, wandering aimlessly around the house, my husband called the crisis team number we’d been given. I was sectioned the following day and finally diagnosed with postpartum psychosis (or PP).

When I received my diagnosis 11 years ago, very little was known about it PP and while my memory of it all is really hazy, it was an incredibly confusing and terrifying time. Because of my experience, I believe it’s so important to raise awareness, and a great way of doing this is through the TV programmes we love.

Hollyoaks is the latest show to be tackling PP – and if you haven’t been following Liberty’s story let me bring you up to speed.

Liberty (Jessamy Stoddart) recently gave birth, supposedly as a surrogate to enable her sister, Sienna, to become a mum. However, Liberty’s bond with her baby was so strong she was reluctant to give her up. If that wasn’t enough, soon after the birth, Liberty started to become quite unwell, and we soon discover that she is experiencing PP.

PP is a severe, but treatable, form of mental illness that occurs after having a baby; there are around 1,400 cases of PP in the UK every year. 

Some groups of women – those with a history of bipolar disorder, for example – are at greater risk. But it can happen to anyone, even those of us, like me, who have no prior history of mental health problems. So in my professional role with charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis, I’ve been working closely with the Hollyoaks team over the last few months to ensure that Liberty’s story is accurate and true to life.

If women, their friends and family and even their healthcare providers are able to learn more about the illness and the symptoms that come with it, perhaps they won’t have to wait as long as I did to get the help they need.

When we watch Hollyoaks, we can see that Liberty is frightened and very anxious, just like I was. But she struggles to understand what is happening to her because her version of reality is really distorted.

With psychosis, it can often be the people around you who notice first, which is why it’s vital to depict the signs and symptoms to as many as possible.

It is frequently characterised by hallucinations and paranoid thinking – neither of which are easy to portray on the screen, so the team and I worked not only on the storyline and script, but we also had the opportunity to feedback on some of the visual representations of hallucinations.

Hollyoaks were great about taking our feedback on board and worked closely with us to get something that more accurately represented our real-life experiences.

It’s not enough for TV programmes to simply take on these types of issues – they have a duty to viewers, healthcare professionals and particularly survivors to get it right, especially storylines around mental health as there is still so much stigma.

Inauthentic representations only lead to misinformation that can be very damaging to anyone who might already feel anxious about reaching out for help.

Hallucinations, for instance, are very personal and can be difficult to describe because they are not based on how things look in reality. You might see distorted faces or trees, for example, and this can be incredibly frightening.

However, for anyone who hasn’t experienced psychosis before, it’s easy to imagine something cartoon-like or, at the other end of the scale, something from a horror film. Neither are quite right and it would be unhelpful to suggest that’s what PP sufferers go through. 

I’m keen to see Liberty’s story unfold over the coming weeks and am happy that the story is in good hands with a cast and team committed to getting it right. While PP is a frightening and a severe mental illness, there is help available and it can be treated – I personally haven’t had another episode since giving birth to my first child.

I really hope that anyone reading this who might be affected can take comfort from my recovery and use Liberty’s story to recognise the signs and ask for help.

If you want to find out more about postpartum psychosis and the peer support networks available, visit Action on Postpartum Psychosis. To get involved, visit the charity’s Christmas campaign page.

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