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The North State Healthy Moms Project

12/24/2019 01:04PM ● By Melissa Mendonca

Not Alone

By Melissa Mendonca
Photo by Alexis LeClair

“The biggest complication of pregnancy is having a mental health issue,” says Barbara Sheehy, maternal mental health manager at Dignity Health. “One in five will have anxiety or depression or another mental health condition emerge during pregnancy or postpartum. Most won’t be detected.”

The North State Healthy Moms Project has developed to change the statistics, not only for women and their children, but the overall health of our communities. “When we take good care of pregnant and postpartum women, we are ensuring the health of the whole family,” she adds. “The conditions are treatable.”

Located in Siskiyou, Shasta and Tehama counties, the North State Healthy Moms Project has three broad goals in mind: detect mental health issues, reduce stigma and improve access to care. Advisory committees and coordinators in each county have been busy identifying existing services so they can begin filling the gaps that prevent care.

“Often times, women would rather get help from their primary care provider,” says Sheehy, noting that a hallmark of the project has been training nearly 100 doctors, midwives, nurses and social workers in maternal mental health. Armed with information on how to detect mental health issues as well as the knowledge of where to refer, providers are better equipped to improve the health outcomes of their patients. “It’s a very pressing topic and many providers are interested and want to learn more,” she adds.

In an area short on resources, new options are offered to increase care. Trained therapists at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Stockton and a perinatal psychiatrist in the Bay Area are available through telehealth connections to North State women. “It’s really meant to make sure that any woman can access that kind of care,” says Sheehy.

While some conditions require the management of licensed professionals, others can be helped by trained peer support, whether in groups or one on one. She adds that “intensive training to teach people to facilitate support groups” has also been provided by the project. It is, “for many women, an opportunity to get support, whether it’s one other woman who’s going through something similar, or a group environment – just to feel less isolated.”

“There is a whole range of types of conditions and severity, and this is where we really want to support our providers to get the right level of care,” she adds. “Maternal mental health should be a regular part of maternity care so people become more comfortable talking about it.”

Christine Woroniecki is a behavioral science coordinator for Dignity Health and the project coordinator for the Redding service area of the North State Healthy Moms Project. “It really transformed the way a lot of people are doing their work,” she says of the project.

Her particular delight has been in observing transformations of participants in a three-day Group Peer Support training. “I watched people really blossom over the three days,” she says. “Folks who may have started out tentative and shy really blossomed.” Part of that is the growing acknowledgment that “it’s OK to talk about the struggle. It’s OK to say yes to assistance.”

She notes that the project ties into adverse childhood experiences, a concept the region has been working collaboratively to address. “We tend to be a little higher than the state average in a number of societal ills. North State Healthy Moms fits in so well with that overall effort. And it really is primary prevention. It’s moving the needle on lowering our rates of child maltreatment.”

“Parenting, I’ve always thought, is the great leveler,” says Woroniecki. “It really is one of those things that cuts across all sectors.”

While many people struggle, many solutions are being sought. Woroniecki says her greatest take-home message for any woman struggling is, “You’re not alone. You’re not to blame. There’s help out there. You’re the right person to parent your child.” %

Editor’s note: If you are struggling with these issues, talk to your healthcare provider. You can also find local resources at www.211norcal.org.