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Marquette professors awarded grant to develop perinatal mental health intervention program

The network of care that the three professors are aiming to create will be fully implemented in the community by the end of 2024.
Perinatal Mental Health
Posted at 9:20 AM, Sep 19, 2023

MILWAUKEE — Twenty-one years ago Kimberly D'Anna-Hernandez gave birth to her first son. At the time she was an undergraduate student.

"I come from a fairly traditional Mexican family, so that was sort of a little different than I think what they had imagined for me," she shared.

The experience was also different from what she thought it would be. D'Anna-Hernandez said she struggled with mental health both while pregnant and postpartum.

According to the National Institute of Health, depression is one of the most common, serious complications of pregnancy.

"During pregnancy, I just thought it was normal. Like everybody feels like this. I don't think I realized it was more so than that," she said.

Her feelings of depression persisted after she gave birth to her son.

"The hardest part was knowing that I should have been feeling some way about my infant that I didn't quite feel and not understanding what that disconnect was," D'Anna-Hernandez shared. "It didn't really set in until I really bonded, which took about a year for me. Then I had tremendous feelings of guilt. So then I had a lot of thoughts of how do I make up for that? And that lasted a couple of years."

That vulnerable and personal experience informs the work she does now as an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at Marquette.

"Studying what you know, being passionate about what you're doing has been really important to me," she said.

D'Anna-Hernandez eventually connected with two other like-minded professors. Lisa Edwards is a professor in counselor education and Kavitha Venkateswaran is a clinical assistant professor. Together they were awarded a grant from the Medical College of Wisconsin to develop and implement intervention practices for perinatal mental health. The funding for the grant came from American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

"We want to take this intervention out into clinics in the community and also train students that are in our programs studying counseling, psychology, nursing, physical therapy, so that when they graduate and they go out into the community they'll already have this training," Venkateswaran said.

Venkateswaran said the focus of the grant is on prevention.

"When we think about postpartum depression, oftentimes we're thinking about intervening once delivery happens and once a birthing person is coming in and talking about their depression symptoms," she said.

D'Anna-Hernandez said addressing issues early or before they even present, is key.

"Instead of dealing with this issue on the back end, coming from the front and saying 'OK we know this is an issue, especially during pregnancy, how can we have this preventative program that can really be broadly applied throughout the community and affect many different populations?'" D'Anna Hernandez said.

But they said there are steps providers and community organizations can take before those symptoms even start.

"What can we do before someone delivers, during pregnancy? How can we increase knowledge, awareness and skills both of patients and providers so when they get to delivery they already have a lot of tools in their toolbox that they can pull out," Venkateswaran said.

And she said a lot of the tools already exist in the community, the problem is they're not always interconnected. The work they're doing hopes to make a network of those resources to make sure pregnant people have access to all the care they need.

Some of the resources and tools include breastfeeding education, duola services, and physical therapy.

"The gap we're really trying to fill is that there isn't really a coordinated prevention effort across the Milwaukee community," Venkateswaran said.

Another area the grant hopes to address is the disparate impact on people of color when it comes to accessing perinatal mental health.

"We know historically health care systems haven't always been kind. Or there have been a number of systemic barriers, whether that's lack of insurance, lack of providers, lack of clinics in certain communities," Venkateswaran said.

D'Anna-Hernandez said "in particular for Latina women, we see that depression during pregnancy seems to be high."

Edwards added that "poverty, experiences of racism and discrimination and the stigma around maternal mental health," also contribute to the lack of care.

"Our goal is to increase capacity and touch more lives through training people to deliver this prevention program and to do it in a culturally responsive way," Edwards said.

She explained that having stress, experiencing depression or dealing with anxiety during the perinatal period can have devastating outcomes for moms, families and babies.

"The effects of having that type of stress during this period can be low birth weight, pre-term labor, all the way too, we're seeing in the research, kids can have cognitive concerns and delays, behavioral problems, emotional concerns," Edwards said.

The network of care that the three professors are aiming to create will be fully implemented in the community by the end of 2024.

"My dream outcome is to have a collaborative in Milwaukee that involves community stakeholders, members, people from other organizations and we have a physical presence where this is known that this is a hub for perinatal mental health," D'Anna-Hernandez.

It's the kind of care she wishes she had when she was pregnant with her first son.