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9th May 2022

The Welsh researcher behind EastEnders postpartum psychosis storyline

In 2016, viewers watched as EastEnders character Stacey Slater struggled after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and experienced postpartum psychosis, following the birth of her son.

Today, Professor Ian Jones from Cardiff, who worked with EastEnders on this storyline, is championing research to better treat and prevent this illness which affects one in five of women with bipolar disorder.

Ian’s inspiration

Beginning his career as a psychiatrist, Ian’s motivation to get into research started with a “frustration” with the level of knowledge around women’s mental health.

After working with another researcher recruiting people with bipolar disorder to a study, Ian was struck by the number of women who experienced their first serious episode of mental health illness following childbirth.

Now Ian is the director of the National Centre for Mental Health and a Health and Care Research Wales senior research leader, he said: “I think women’s mental health has been under-researched.

“What we’ve known about for hundreds, if not thousands of years, is that for some women, having a baby can be a real trigger for episodes of severe illness.”

Help from mums with bipolar disorder

An essential part of any research is guidance from those who are living with the disease. In a recent study, Ian sought the help of women with bipolar disorder so he could understand how they make decisions related to their illness.

With their support, researchers were able to develop a guide which women with bipolar disorder can use to help them understand the risks of pregnancy and to inform their next steps.

Ian said: “The guide is vital support for women who need to make massively difficult decisions about continuing or stopping medication to become pregnant.”

“We couldn’t have done it without members of the public, they’re a key part of the research jigsaw, without them nothing is going to work.”

Informing EastEnders producers

In 2015, along with Clare Dolman who has lived experience of bipolar disorder and postpartum psychosis, Ian visited Elstree Studios where EastEnders is filmed and pitched the idea that a pregnant Stacey Slater could experience postpartum psychosis after giving birth.

Ian said: “We knew EastEnders had a bipolar character on the programme who was pregnant, and we thought what a fantastic way to get the word out about a condition which is very misunderstood.

“I think it’s probably one of the most important things I’ve done in my career.”

The storyline was watched by over 10 million people, and as a result the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis saw their contact with the public increase by 400%.

A better future

Continuing to strive for better treatments and care for women, Ian is launching a new study into women who are admitted to mother and baby units across the UK later this year.

The study aims to develop new treatments for new mums who are experiencing the hallucinations, delusions and serious changes in mood which come with postpartum psychosis.

Ian concluded: “We need to understand things better for the huge number of women who experience postpartum psychosis.

“As a researcher, I think you can make major changes which could impact on not just the few patients that you see, but many hundreds, many thousands more throughout the world.”

Learn more about Ian and his work on maternal mental health on Health and Care Research Wales’s Where would we be without research? podcast. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.