Jenny’s story of planning for pregnancy and managing bipolar disorder
I was first treated for mental health problems when I was 28. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder three years later, when husband my Henry and I had already been thinking about starting a family.
I started taking medication and successfully changed careers from law to art. But it was another three years before we were able to try for a baby. At first, I couldn’t find a healthcare professional who could help us. Getting information felt a bit like banging my head against a brick wall. The turning point though was getting to see the right person – a specialist perinatal psychiatrist.
We had been told by our community care team that I shouldn’t get pregnant whilst on lithium (which was the medication I was taking) and that they wouldn’t advise stopping lithium, because it’s not safe. This left us wondering whether we were ever going to be able to have children. But the perinatal specialist was able to tell us exactly what our options were and what risks were involved.
To have that conversation with her was the most amazing thing and made us feel we were being given hope and being empowered to make informed decisions. It’s a way of getting control back - knowing exactly what your options are.
Based on the advice we were given, we decided I would gradually stop lithium and use other medication. I also used a mood management programme called True Colours to help self-manage my mood and prepare for pregnancy. I found this really helpful in my early pregnancy. It was like an intensive mood management course, looking at triggers, relapse prevention and detailed information about, for example sleep, exercise and stress. It sounds simple, but when these things are really broken down for you, it’s very empowering. You find ways to self-manage, that are nothing to do with medication. This really helped me manage my anxiety around pregnancy.
I also had a really brilliant care co-ordinator who helped us write a plan of how to cope during the pregnancy, birth and afterwards. Part of it was a sheet with contact details of all the different people who would be involved in my care. This included the GP, psychiatrist, care coordinator and the obstetrician (a doctor specialising in pregnancy.) That was very helpful. This plan also helped my healthcare professionals work together to co-ordinate treatment more effectively.
After the birth of our first child, a baby boy, everything seemed to be going well. But when my daughter was born two years later, following a lot of stressful events during the pregnancy, I suffered postpartum psychosis. I was lucky enough to get into a Mother and Baby Unit (a specialist, in-patient unit for some women with mental health problems during pregnancy, or after the birth of their child) and keep my baby with me. But I didn’t get home for nearly six months and it was a long journey back to full health. But you do come out of the other side.
I’m very well now and Henry and I feel really blessed to have our two children. I’d like to emphasise how important it is for women with serious mental health conditions like bipolar disorder to see a perinatal specialist. I feel very passionately about women being able to access the specialist support they need before trying for a baby.
That hour we spent with the specialist perinatal psychiatrist before trying for our baby boy really changed my life, and I don’t say that lightly. Having hope that we could have a family made such a massive difference.
I’d also like to reiterate the need for preconception care to lead into continued discussions around planning your family and having more children. Quite often the focus is on the first pregnancy, but it’s important to remember that there are different considerations as your family grows, which also need further conversations and planning.
My advice to anyone with a serious mental health condition is to really push for the specialist advice that you need as early as possible. It’s so helpful to ask the questions you need and have access to professionals who have the specialist knowledge. They can’t take away every potential risk or problem, but it means that you know what your options are and can make an informed choice about your care.
Planning a pregnancy with a serious mental health condition
Planning a pregnancy is exciting and takes time and thought for everyone involved. If you are managing a serious mental health condition like bipolar, we have information to support you, including top 5 things to think about when planning a pregnancy and guidance on seeking support with medication.
Visit our information hub for anyone who is planning a pregnancy with a serious mental health condition.