How Women of Color Can Manage The Impact of Acculturative Stress and Discrimination During Pregnancy

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dr sumner acculturative stress and discrimination during pregnancyToday I’m thrilled to have Dr. Lekeisha Sumner with us to share insight on two very common types of stress women of color may experience during pregnancy and tips on how we can manage both. Dr. Lekeisha Sumner, PhD, ABPP is a board-certified clinical psychologist with specialization in both clinical psychology and medical psychology. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Alliant International University and Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. A frequent commentator on psychological science, she has written extensively on trauma and the intersection of culture and gender in health and well-being. Dr. Sumner maintains an independent practice in West Los Angeles where she was recently commissioned by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Center for Substance Abuse Treatment to serve on the Strategies for Improving Outcomes for Peripartum Women committee.

With so many changes in one’s body, daily routine, and responsibilities, it’s typical for many women to feel overwhelmed at times both during pregnancy and after the birth of baby. And yet, for some women, these feelings can be compounded by stressful experiences related to their cultural backgrounds or ethnicities, which increases their vulnerability for emotional distress.

Take for example, Olivia, a bright and compassionate 28-year old woman who was in the second trimester of her first pregnancy when we met. She had moved to the United States several years ago from her native country and was elated to finally have the opportunity to be with the man of her dreams and start a family. Her husband, a US native, was supportive of her adjustment to life in a new country and particularly attentive to her needs during pregnancy. She was especially grateful for the comfort he provided now that she lived without her extended family.

Despite all the wonderful changes that were happening in her life, Olivia felt chronically overwhelmed and was stunned by the recent discovery that she had developed hypertension during her pregnancy. She had already unsuccessfully tried the home remedies her mother suggested which included taking a walk around the block and listening to relaxing music. But, at the urging of her husband who observed her increasingly distressed mood, she decided to enter psychotherapy.

Olivia began experiencing stress on her job long before she became pregnant but things only intensified once she disclosed her pregnancy to her boss. Since that time, she began to experience difficulty sleeping, little appetite, constant worrying, and difficulty concentrating and had even begun to grind her teeth during sleep. Given the severity of the symptoms, Olivia was concerned that they would negatively impact her pregnancy. As she began to delve into the underlying sources of her stressors and the contexts in which they occurred, it became clear that many of the experiences she described are common among women from some ethnic and cultural groups (especially women of color, refugees, immigrants, etc.) yet rarely discussed: acculturative stress and discrimination.

Acculturative stress typically refers to the emotional strain of having to alter one’s cultural attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to adapt to and navigate a distinctly different culture. For Olivia, acculturative stress presented as the strong social pressure she felt to quickly learn English and lose the accent of her native language. She also experienced discrimination on her job as her boss would often humiliate her by making snide comments about immigrants within earshot. He would keep constant tabs on her, would make embarrassing “jokes” about people of color and her accent, and routinely give her lower performance evaluations than her colleagues even though her productivity was equal too or greater than theirs. After disclosing her pregnancy, these incidents worsened. Although working in a hostile climate resulted in her having performance anxiety, ruminative thoughts and nightmares, she was too intimidated to report this behavior to human resources and believed she would have been labeled as being “too sensitive,” “playing the race card” and perhaps worse, risk further alienation and stigmatization.

Over a period of time, intense and chronic stressors like the ones Olivia experienced can wear on a person and leave them feeling emotionally drained and depleted. The stress brought on by discrimination and acculturative strain during pregnancy can quickly erode one of the most sacred and enjoyable periods of a woman’s life and render women at risk for symptoms of depression and anxiety, and poorer lifestyle choices (e.g. eating habits, nicotine use) as they attempt to cope. For some groups, these stressors may alter the release of bodily hormones that may affect the outcomes of pregnancy. For example, African American women across the economic and educational strata have the highest rates of preterm birth in the United States. Studies confirm that these findings are in part due to the high levels of chronic stress and ethnic discrimination they are exposed to throughout the lifespan. While research shows that these stressors do not affect everyone or every group of pregnant women exactly the same, they can certainly diminish mood mood, energy, and confidence in caring for baby.

There are some ways to help lessen the impact of acculturative stress and discrimination. For instance, women who use healthy coping strategies (e.g meditation, walking, journaling, asking for help), those with a strong belief in their ability to overcome obstacles and those who have pride in and a connection with their cultural heritage and cultural values all seem to have better emotional responses in the face of these types of stressors than those without. Also, women who feel a sense of belonging and receive support from their partners throughout pregnancy and post-partum also tend to respond better. For Olivia, getting involved in an on-line support group, a local church that appreciated congregants from diverse backgrounds and engaging in psychotherapy were all beneficial in helping to restore her well-being and equipping her to improve her ability to cope.

For all women, the pregnancy experience is shaped not only by biology but also by psychological and cultural influences. While you may be limited in eradicating all stressors during pregnancy, given the suffering that severe culture-specific stress during pregnancy can cause for you and baby, it’s a good idea to discuss with your doctor as soon as possible any concerns in your life.   You will also want to monitor your stress levels not only during pregnancy but also in the many months after your bundle of joy is delivered. Taking a few extra steps can help you better prepare to be the best warrior mom you can be.

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Misdiagnosis and Missed Diagnosis: Part 2

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Trigger Warning: This is part 2 of a 2 part story (part 1 can be read here) of my misdiagnosis and missed diagnosis after giving birth in 2009. This post contains some references and details about Postpartum OCD, Intrusive Thoughts, miscarriage, and D&C. If you are feeling particularly vulnerable and prone to triggers, you may want to avoid this post until a later time. 

After I was discharged from my second hospitalization, I still hadn’t been able to get in to see the psychiatrist and ended up at the ER because I was out of Lexapro and had no more refills. Since TriCare doesn’t cover Lexapro on the formulary, I was switched to Celexa (the generic version) and told to keep trying to find a doctor who could see me. I called various doctors and they either weren’t accepting new patients, didn’t have any openings, or in one case, “Refused to take me on” and wouldn’t explain why. Let me tell you, this didn’t make me feel any better.

I went in to see my PCP (Primary Care Physician) to get my Celexa refilled and while I was there, he ordered a lab test to have my thyroid levels checked. I never heard anything back so when I returned to get another refill ordered, I asked the nurse about the results. She looked it up and said “Oh yes, it’s abnormal, he’ll need to talk to you about that”. When the doctor came in, I asked him about it and he said “We’ll take a look at that after we get your meds taken care of”. He never looked at my lab results and left without saying anything.

At the end of November, the day after Thanksgiving, my husband, daughter, and myself were in a car wreck. I was driving and we rearended another vehicle. I had a nasty case of whiplash and a concussion, my husband broke his ankle, and our daughter’s car seat did it’s job and she wasn’t even sore. I was given a small amount of painkillers to help with the whiplash, but the whiplash persisted past the medication. I went back to the medical clinic and saw a different doctor. While I was there, I mentioned the thyroid labs that had been done and that I was curious to know what the results were. She took a look and hit the roof, saying that my thyroid results were WAY outside normal limits. She wanted to do a re-test since it had been months since the last test, so she put in a lab to recheck my thyroid levels and put a rush on it, promising to call me back to let me know what the results were.

In less than 24 hours, I got a call back from her nurse telling me that I definitely had hypothyroidism and could I come in that day to see the doctor so she could talk to me about the condition and get me started on medication, and let me know how it would all be handled moving forwards. I was at the hospital with my husband in surgery having his ankle repaired, so I had to wait a couple of days but they got me in ASAP. The numbers on my lab results were extremely bad and I’m surprised my symptoms weren’t worse. I promptly switched doctors so that this “new” doctor was my primary and I refused to ever see the other doctor again. In hindsight, I should have filed ICE Complaints on both him and the Nurse Practitioner who ignored my Edinburgh Scale at my 6 week postpartum check up, but hindsight is 20-20 and all that.

The new doctor informed me that hypothyroidism can be caused by pregnancy. It often clears up, but in some cases it just sticks around. I was started on the lowest dose of Levothyroxine, 25 mcg, and had my thyroid levels checked again in a week or two. The repeat lab showed that my thyroid levels were improving but I needed a slightly higher dose so I was bumped up to taking 50 mcg of the Levothyroxine, and that turned out to be my magic dose. After 3 months of Levothyroxine, my PPMD symptoms were totally cleared up and I was able to wean off of the Celexa, Ativan, and Ambien. I had finally found a therapist to see, and she had me come in a little more often until we were sure that I wasn’t going to have a recurrence of symptoms but soon I was able to stop seeing her as well.

It’s been 4 ½ years since my hypothyroidism was diagnosed and 50 mcg of Levothyroxine has managed my condition ever since. Normal protocol is to have my thyroid levels checked once a year, but when I’m pregnant my levels are checked once each trimester. Even with the pregnancies, the same dose of Levothyroxine has done me right and I haven’t had the same issues, even through 3 pregnancies, one of which was as a Gestational Surrogate and ended at 12 weeks with a D&C for a missed miscarriage.

There are several morals to my story. One is that we desperately need better availability of mental health care, both inpatient and outpatient. I should not have had as much trouble finding a doctor and therapist to see me as I did, nor should I have needed to wait for a month or longer to have an intake appointment after inpatient treatment. The second moral of the story is that medical professionals need to have better training on the difference between suicidal/homicidal ideations and intrusive thoughts and between the various forms of PPMD. Screening on intake (including arrival at the ER) should include noting the differences. There also needs to be better availability of treatment options for postpartum mothers. Being put in a general hospital wing wasn’t that helpful. People who are recovering from substance abuse and addiction aren’t going through the same thing and we just weren’t able to really understand or offer much helpful advice to each other because the situations are so totally different.

The biggest lesson in this story is to be your own advocate. Don’t let medical professionals shirk on their jobs, don’t let them overlook symptoms and cries for help, definitely don’t let them leave an appointment without going over your lab results. Don’t let them rush off without giving you the attention and help that you need. This is not “causing trouble”, this is asking them to do their job. You are your own best advocate.

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Misdiagnosis and Missed Diagnosis: Part 1

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Trigger Warning: This is part 1 of a 2 part story of my misdiagnosis and missed diagnosis after giving birth in 2009. This post contains some references and details about Postpartum OCD and Intrusive Thoughts. If you are feeling particularly vulnerable and prone to triggers, you may want to avoid this post until a later time. 

In July of 2009, 3 months after having my first baby, I finally admitted that all was not well in my world. For 3 months, I had been falling deeper and deeper into a spiral of awful. Sometimes I felt indescribably angry. Sometimes I felt a deep sense of sadness and despair and would just cry and cry and cry, or maybe I’d be about to get out of the car in the parking lot at the store and suddenly burst into tears and not even know why. Sometimes I felt completely numb; I would just sit in my rocking chair holding my beautiful little girl, staring off into space, not really thinking or feeling anything at all other than blankness and emptiness. The worst of all was pictures and thoughts that flashed unbidden into my mind. Thoughts and pictures of dropping or throwing my daughter down the stairs. It terrified me and I would actually cancel appointments if I was upstairs because I didn’t want to carry my child on or near the stairs and those pictures and thoughts become reality. As soon as they entered my mind I would chase them away and hug my baby a little closer and pray “God, what’s happening? Please forgive me and make this go away”. I had no idea what was wrong with me.

At my 6 week Postpartum check up at the Wilford Hall Medical Center OB/GYN clinic, I filled out the  Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale questionnaire that I was handed. My answers clearly indicated that I needed further screening but the Nurse Practitioner who saw me just put it to the side without saying anything and never really asked how I was feeling, so I figured that what I was experiencing must be normal (news flash: it wasn’t). Things kept getting worse until eventually, one night in July, I found myself standing at the top of the stairs while everyone else was asleep thinking that everyone else would be so much better off without me if I threw myself down the stairs. I walked away and started to go to bed and then thought that it would be easy to take a massive amount of the painkillers my husband had left over from ankle surgery and just go to sleep and not wake up. I called the chaplain and he met me at the Emergency Room.

I was diagnosed with Postpartum Depression and transferred to a psychiatric facility in San Antonio, since WHMC (the military hospital on Lackland Air Force Base) only admitted service members for inpatient treatment of mental health issues, dependents automatically got referred out. I was breastfeeding my baby and didn’t want to have to stop, so we tried going the medication-free route first with talk therapy, both individual and group. We quickly realized that it wasn’t making enough of a difference, so on to medication it was.

During this time, one of the biggest questions asked of me was “Do you have thoughts of harming or killing yourself or others?”. I answered yes. Partly because I had found myself on the brink of attempting to commit suicide, but also partly because of the thoughts I had been experiencing. I later found out that the thoughts and images that shoved their way uninvited into my mind were Intrusive Thoughts, one of the classic and tell-tale symptoms of Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I didn’t know, at the time, that there was a difference between suicidal/homicidal ideations and intrusive thoughts, or that there was a whole spectrum of Postpartum Mod and Anxiety Disorders, I thought it was just all part of Postpartum Depression. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the staff caring for me at either of the hospitals knew this either, and I was diagnosed as simply Postpartum Depression. This is one of the things that I eventually hope to see changed: to see better education for medical professionals making them aware of the differences between types of symptoms and the various PPMD.

It only took a few days after starting medication (Lexapro) before I started to feel better. Before starting medication, my mom and my husband had come to visit me at the hospital and when my daughter started to cry, it was a noticeable trigger. My mom and husband had to keep the baby up front and switch off who had her and who was visiting with me. After starting meds, I was able to cope better when she started to fuss, I started to open up a little in therapy instead of sitting huddled up in the corner unable to speak without crying. After a little over a week in the hospital, I was sent home with prescriptions for Lexapro to manage my symptoms on a daily basis, Ativan for sudden anxiety attacks, and Ambien to help me sleep at night. I was also given an appointment to see a psychiatrist outside of the hospital.

When I went to my first appointment it was a total disaster. I ended up having to reschedule after I had been there for a couple of hours and still not been seen, because I had to get home since my babysitter had to leave. They weren’t able to reschedule me for another month or so out. I ended up back in the hospital a month after being discharged due to a recurrence of my symptoms (again, the intrusive thoughts that I didn’t know much about and didn’t know how to manage), and had my medication dosage adjusted. Thankfully, I only had to stay for about a week again and was able to go back home.

To be continued tomorrow…

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Digging Deep – Why We Need to Check on the Postpartum Mom

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Neither of my two pregnancies were normal. Four weeks after my first child was born, I experienced postpartum psychosis and had to be hospitalized for almost a week. Five weeks into my second child’s pregnancy I was manic and also required a week-long hospitalization to recover from the episode. I didn’t have typical pregnancies. So one would think I would have the courage to ask a close friend or family member who recently gave birth how they’re really doing. Emotionally and mentally.

I’m sad to admit that I haven’t. But I vow to change.

One woman to another, it shouldn’t be so hard to check in. Whatever is holding us back, we need to push it aside for the reason that we could be saving another mama from more heartache than she should have to go through after bringing a new life into the world.

My idea is simple. I will visit the next one of my friends or family members who has a baby. No matter how busy I may be at the time. No matter what. I will make time because this is important and close to my heart.

I’m going to bring her a basket of fancy tea and her favorite cookies a few weeks after she’s had the baby. She’ll have had time to settle back in at home, and I’ll leave my kids with a babysitter so that I can snuggle the swaddled-up newborn and kiss the top of his or her head why my friend relaxes, curled up on the couch with a hot cup of tea.

We’ll talk. I’ll ask the tough questions. I’ll ask her how she feels since the baby arrived. How she’s handling the new addition. I’ll ask how she’s sleeping. Is she sleeping at all? Whether she’s eating enough. I’ll ask if she feels hopelessly overwhelmed. Is she scared? Whether she’s been able to bond with the baby or she feels like running away. I’ll ask if she’s had any intrusive or racing thoughts.

Hopefully she’ll be fine. She’ll be easing into motherhood slowly and surely.

But if she’s not, she may be one of the thousands of women each year who come face-to-face with a postpartum mood disorder.

I’ll hug her when she cries. We’ll cry together, this I’m sure. I’ll tell her I know how she feels because I was there once too. She will know that she’s not alone and that I care deeply about her mental health. I’ll tell her it’s going to be okay and I’ll help her find her OB/GYN’s number and we’ll make the call to get an appointment right then and there.

I’ll tell her it can and will get better, but it takes professional help.

And so we’ll make the call together.

As women, we’re the only ones who know what having a baby feels like. We need to pledge to one another that we will look out for our fellow mamas. One in seven is a startling statistic. Approximately 15% of new moms gets postpartum depression. This may be a tough conversation to have, but just think of the difference you could make in a new mama’s life if she were struggling with a postpartum mood disorder and didn’t know where to turn.

She could turn to you. She could turn to me. She can turn to Postpartum Progress and see all the incredible Warrior Mamas out there who are advocating for women’s mental health and who have overcome these postpartum mood disorders.

We can do this together if we dig deep and check in on each other.

Every time.

Photo Credit: the.redhead.and.the.wolf via Compfight cc

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