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The negative impact of perinatal depression—which may be experienced by some women during pregnancy or after their baby is born—is well known. Feeling sad, anxious, overwhelmed, or confused not only affects a mother’s health but also the health and wellbeing of her child.
For Associate Professor of Psychology Huynh-Nhu (Mimi) Le, even more troubling is that women from low-income minority groups are more prone to perinatal depression than other women. The reasons are varied and range from lack of resources and feelings of isolation, to the stigma attached to mental health issues in many cultural communities.
“The effects of perinatal depression are all well-documented, but there are fewer studies on prevention, particularly among low-income Latina women,” said Le. “That’s where my research is focused.”
With a five-year grant from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Le has led an effort to create a “Mothers and Babies” eight-week course and manual—available in both English and Spanish—designed specifically to prevent perinatal depression in low-income women. Collaborating with her on the project are scholars from the University of California, Georgetown University, and Johns Hopkins University.
The manual and course pull heavily from Le’s research in cognitive-behavioral therapy as one method for preventing perinatal depression. The practice is a form of psychotherapy that applies goal-oriented, systematic procedures to teach patients to think and approach issues differently and empower them with self-counseling skills.
“Mothers and Babies” is geared toward women who have high risk factors, including a history of depression in the family. It emphasizes strategies for how to interact with newborns and ways to manage stress and improve moods. To date, the course has been administered to hundreds of new mothers.
“We provide mothers the opportunity to talk with other women who are expecting a baby or who already have a baby,” noted Le. “They have the opportunity to share ideas and concerns before and after giving birth, and receive support as needed.”
Le is now focused on a second study of women enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Women at a high risk for perinatal depression took part in a six-week version of her course. Both pregnant women and mothers of infants were included in the study. “We are doing data collection now,” said Le. She hopes that bringing the conversation to the national level will help prevent perinatal depression nationwide.
“We trained more than 1,000 WIC staff members in depression screening over a period of 15 months,” she said. “We believe this will help.”