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Wayne State social work alumna recognized for dissertation on maternal mental health

January 22, 2015

Wayne State social work alumna recognized for dissertation on maternal mental health

For the second time in three years, a dissertation from the Doctoral Program of the Wayne State School of Social Work has garnered praise from the discipline’s top research society.

Mickey Sperlich (Ph.D. ’14) was an honorable mention of the 2015 Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) Outstanding Social Work Doctoral Dissertation Award for her dissertation entitled, “Trauma Exposure, Posttraumatic Stress, and Depression in a Community Sample of First-Time Mothers”. Sperlich’s dissertation is an examination of the comorbidity between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression in childbearing women with a history of trauma. SSWR, which named Wayne State graduate Jessica Lucero (Ph.D., ’12) a 2013 honorable mention for her doctoral dissertation, presented Sperlich with the award at its annual conference in New Orleans on Jan. 17.

Sperlich’s research, an analysis of data from an existing perinatal mental health study of roughly 1,600 women, is one of the first to examine the relationship during pregnancy between trauma and both PTSD and depression – two conditions that typically are studied separately in perinatal research, Sperlich said. The data, much of which was drawn from Detroit’s Hutzel Women’s Hospital, indicate the need to bring “a trauma-informed lens to maternity care.”

“Surprisingly, knowing that someone had symptoms of PTSD during pregnancy appears to be a better predictor of whether they will have postpartum depression than knowing if they were depressed during pregnancy,” said Sperlich. “We typically assess for depression during pregnancy but not for PTSD, so we may be missing the women who are really at risk for depression after the birth of their children.”

Professor Arlene Weisz, Sperlich’s dissertation advisor and past director of the school’s doctoral program, described Sperlich’s work as “very ambitious.”

“Dr. Sperlich made some fascinating distinctions between different types of traumas that women experience and their mental health effects. She also looked at the consequences of changes between the newest and previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is the dominant tool in the US for mental health diagnosis. Her sophisticated analysis encourages practitioners to recognize the importance of trauma symptoms that may not reach the level of being diagnosable as PTSD,” Weisz said.

According to Sperlich, a certified professional midwife who received a dual-title Ph.D. in social work and infant mental health, women who have at some point in their lives experienced violence, sexual or physical assault, a serious accident or another form of trauma may experience difficulties during their pregnancies.

“Many gynecological procedures and even pregnancy itself can cause intrusive reexperiencing, which is the feeling that a past trauma is happening all over again, as well as a state of hyperarousal as women try to avoid these triggers. All of this may lead to depression, particularly in women who have discontinued their use of antidepressants for the health of the fetus,” Sperlich said. “My research points to the need for better mental health assessments during pregnancy and increased coordination of physical and mental health services for pregnant and postpartum women.”

Citing a “uniformly positive experience” earning her Ph.D. at the School of Social Work, Sperlich said her research benefited from the program’s “interdisciplinary approach,” which was augmented with a pre-doctoral fellowship at Wayne State University’s Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute.

“I benefitted greatly from exposure to a multitude of perspectives working with the faculty, as well as the opportunity to work with data gathered right here in Detroit,” she said.

For additional information on the Wayne State University School of Social Work Doctoral Program, visit https://socialwork.wayne.edu/phd/index.php

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