UB social worker receives $150,000 NIH award to advance a support program for pregnant and new moms

A pregnant person speaks with a therapist.

Release Date: August 4, 2023

Mickey Sperlich, PhD, associate professor in the UB School of Social Work.
“We often have this picture of pregnancy as a happy period, which it can be, but the truth here is that for trauma survivors, there are unique challenges. ”
Mickey Sperlich, PhD, associate professor of social work
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A University at Buffalo social work researcher and a local health and human services agency have received a $150,000 challenge prize from the National Institutes of Health to further develop a support program for pregnant and new mothers who have experienced trauma.

Mickey Sperlich, PhD, an associate professor in the UB School of Social Work, will partner with the Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network (BPPN) on a study that will advance the science behind the Survivor Moms’ Companion (SMC), a supported self-study intervention Sperlich co-created while working as a researcher at the University of Michigan.

SMC is an evidence-based intervention for new and pregnant mothers with a history of trauma, sexual abuse or violence. The 10-module program guides participants through weekly lessons to help manage emotions and minimize the risks of reinvigorating past trauma.

“This award will allow us to conduct a study that advances the science for the Survivor Moms’ Companion, but it also allows us to establish a social worker at BPPN to help the community health workers who will be delivering the intervention,” says Sperlich.

Unresolved trauma often adversely affects a woman’s mental health, and women of color are disproportionately at risk for trauma and developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can contribute to problems like infant prematurity, low birth weight and postpartum maternal mental health complications.

Because cycles of trauma often intersect with a woman’s childbearing years, pregnancy is an opportune time to intervene. But screening and treating PTSD are rarely done during the prenatal period, according to Sperlich, an expert in trauma-informed approaches to mental health who has also worked as a midwife.

“There’s a lot going on during pregnancy, and add to that life challenges that might arise like moving, changing jobs, reassessing relationships, preparing for parenting – making it difficult to access specialty care for trauma treatment,” says Sperlich. “That’s why we designed the SMC to be positioned in maternity care systems as a regular offering. We also hope that naming these issues as common occurrences will help to destigmatize and normalize the variety of reactions people have to their pregnancies and becoming parents.”

Sperlich says that early research on the SMC established it as a PTSD-specific perinatal intervention. Now the award-funded study will further examine its feasibility; evaluate its effectiveness at reducing PTSD symptoms; and assess how clients accept the intervention.

SMC combines structured education with information and instruction. It uses plain language through its modules and involves a review of the material with a supportive tutor who discusses lessons learned afterwards with the client and who can provide referrals to other services, as well. This structure makes the SMC efficient and more cost-effective than many other interventions, according to Sperlich.

“It focuses on trauma, on PTSD, and on child-bearing, looking at situations or scenarios where past trauma shows up for women during pregnancy, childbirth or postnatally,” she says. “Even routine gynecological procedures for rape survivors can map onto prior trauma, and it’s necessary to be aware of that possibility.”

“We often have this picture of pregnancy as a happy period, which it can be, but the truth here is that for trauma survivors, there are unique challenges.”

Sperlich says she’s happy to be working on the study with BPPN, which is already doing such great work with young families in Buffalo.

“This project speaks to the benefits of community engaged research where we can serve the agency’s needs in terms of offering this service to their clients, but while also improving upon this front-line intervention,” she says.

“I’m hopeful this work will not only put the SMC into the hands of more agencies, but that it might someday also be covered by insurances.”

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