Behind the Scenes
Spotlight: Suzanne Swanson, Ph.D.
Biography: Suzanne Swanson, Ph.D., is an activist in many areas of Maternal Mental Health. Since 2006, she has been the Postpartum Support International (PSI) Minnesota Coordinator. By 2007, along with a collective group of perinatal mental health professionals, she helped form the Pregnancy and Postpartum Support of Minnesota (PPSM) organization. Suzanne also serves on the board for Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth (PATTCh), an organization that helps bridge the birth and mental health worlds.
Suzanne runs a busy psychotherapy practice in St. Paul, Minnesota, centered on woman and family experiences, including treatment of trauma and perinatal mental health. Suzanne takes a mindbody approach and believes in seeing the whole person. Her clinical philosophy is inclusive; she says that while a diagnosis may be critical to getting a woman the help she needs, Suzanne knows her clients are far more than a diagnosis.
Q: How did you become interested in your particular niche, Maternal Mental Health?
I became interested the way a lot of women do — I had a baby! I wasn’t particularly anxious or depressed or anything else diagnosable postpartum, but I was shocked at how my life had utterly changed. I was finishing up my dissertation at the time, and knew no other mothers. The general attitude among my graduate school friends was not critical, but perplexed: “what did you go and do that for?” I was lonely and I began to try to understand this new place and new self. With no one to talk to, I looked for books. 34 years ago there was almost nothing available. I kept looking, though, and kept buying anything I could find, and started noticing mothering and postpartum issues in the clients I worked with.
I became involved in the birth community in the Twin Cities: I did some doula-ing before it was called that, and considered studying midwifery. But I decided instead to focus on the emotional angle of becoming a mother, even though I knew that distinction was somewhat artificial: it had become so clear to me that birth was a quintessential experience of the space where where body and mind and soul and heart are inseparable. I wanted to understand mothers’ experiences, whether they were depressed or anxious or euphoric, whether they’d had a satisfying birth or a traumatic one, whether they felt welcomed in a parenting community or had to create their own.
Q: I’d love to know more about how it is to act as the PSI Minnesota Coordinator. Tell us about the rewards of volunteering for PSI and how you expanded your helping vision to found Pregnancy & Postpartum Support Minnesota (PPSM).
When I became a PSI Coordinator, I was starting from scratch; there’d never been one in Minnesota. I’d met Wendy Davis through a friend who moved from Minnesota to Portland. She assured me — promised — I could do as much or as little as I had time for. I figured that meant I would basically just keep doing what I’d been doing — learning more about perinatal mental health, learning more about mothering, trying to help women find good care — but with the support and resources of other coordinators, and I liked the sound of not feeling so isolated.
Within a few months, though, after being exposed to what those other coordinators were doing, I wanted more for Minnesota. Through Minnesota Women in Psychology, I scheduled a meeting for any mental health professional who was interested in or working with perinatal mental health. A few of us formed PPSM, hashed out our mission statement, and created the Twin Cities Perinatal Mental Health Resource list. These are my peeps. Since then, PPSM has received a grant to train non-mental health professionals in rural areas, started a HelpLine, helped to plan conferences, advocated in the legislature as part of the Minnesota Better Birth Coalition. Members speak about perinatal mental health and illness in a variety of settings.
The rewards come in several ways: working and networking with energetic colleagues who are passionate about maternal mental health (I could obviously not have accomplished what PPSM has done alone!), seeing the community become more aware of perinatal mental illness, and — probably still the best — picking up the phone to talk with a woman who’s scared and ashamed, and help her recognize that she is not alone, that she will get better, that I will try to help her find resources.
That actually brings me to one of the hard parts of being a PSI Coordinator: seeing that there’s still so much more to be done. Uninsured or underinsured families in Minnesota need more recognition and more help and it ought to be culturally-appropriate.
Q: And now you are on that board of the Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth (PATTCh) board. What is your motivation regarding birth trauma? Do you witness birth trauma or obstetrical violence in your practice?
I got interested in working with birth trauma, yes, because it started coming to me via some of my clients, women who were terrified to even think of getting pregnant again after a traumatic birth, or who were pregnant but so anxious they could barely talk about their earlier labor, or the upcoming one. I talked to my doula friends in the Childbirth Collective; I heard Cheryl Beck speak about Postpartum PTSD at a PSI conference. Between those two perspectives, I could really see a need for explicitly recognizing the bridges between labor/birth experiences and postpartum experiences. Caring for parents with respect, presuming they will collaborate in decision-making, can make enormous differences in whether a birth is experienced as difficult and disappointing — or traumatic.
My wonderful doula/childbirth educator colleague, Susan Lane, and I wrote a curriculum — Another Birth/Another Story — for pregnant couples who’ve previously experienced a difficult or traumatic birth . We love teaching this class! We’ve come to see that partners often experience as much trauma as birthing women. It’s just a pleasure to see partners reclaim their birth and rebuild confidence as they decide how they want to approach the next labor.
Q: Tell us more about your panel presentation at the upcoming PSI conference: Stretching the Boundaries: Training Non-Mental Health Perinatal Professionals to Meet the Support Needs of Rural Pregnant and Postpartum Women. It sounds wonderful.
We’ll be talking ab0ut the research PPSM and the University of Minnesota did with three rural communities (via a grant from the Clinical and Translational Science Institute). But we feel sure the audience can take what was developed in rural areas and apply it to other underserved communities. The project trained non-mental-health professionals who regularly interact with pregnant and postpartum women (doulas, family life educators, public health nurses and more) – not to diagnose, but to recognize when something may be off with a woman, and help her find resources. I am really excited about a couple of the results of the project – reaching women via people who are already in her life, of course, bit also building on a spirit of collaboration: helping each individual community identify where it wanted to put its energies — who to train, what to do next.
And, just to be clear, most of my energy in the project was in the early phases — developing a model, making site visits. Others — Deb Rich, Maureen O’Dougherty, Krista Post — were far more involved.
Q: Do you find your non-profit advocacy fulfilling? It sounds wonderful and I’d love some tips about creating a non-profit in New Jersey.
PPSM is not actually a non-profit . . . . yet. We’ve had the good fortune to have two other non-profits — Parenting Oasis and NAMI-MN – act as our fiscal agents as we s l o w l y move toward 501c3 status. So the only tip I can offer is — find yourself a terrific non-profit organization who’ll work with you until you have the volunteer energy and time to establish the real thing.
Q: I see that you are the moderator for the presentation at the conference: Learning from the Lived Experience. The Next Chapter: Building from Our Own Stories. What do you hope to to move forward with this presentation? Education? Awareness? Tell us more.
Both, I suppose. I am just so excited to hear from the five women on this panel who have taken their own experiences with becoming a mother and integrated those into advocacy and service to others. PSI began as a grassroots organization. I am grateful for its expansion into addressing clinical issues and promoting research, but I’m hoping that hearing these stories will inspire us to look within and around ourselves: to reflect, move and create programs with our heads and our hearts.
Q: I understand you did a lot of the work coordinating this year’s PSI conference in Minnesota. How did that come about? And it must have been loads of work!
Actually, no. The credit for planning and coordinating this year’s PSI conference (at the Minnesota end, beyond the vision and work and leadership PSI provides) goes first to NAMI-MN, which has sponsored the annual Beyond the Baby Blues (BBB) conference since 2005 (and was instrumental in the passage of MN legislation which directs professionals and hospitals to make literature about postpartum depression available to mothers).
I think — don’t quote me — we started to dream about having the PSI conference in Minnesota in 2010 when Wendy Davis keynoted Beyond the Baby Blues.. Fast forward, and the 2013 BBB has expanded into PSI 2013, with the full support of NAMI-MN. I can’t thank Sue Abderholden of NAMI and Linda Jones of the U of M Department of Social Work enough for making that happen.
It’s been fun to be on the program committee, led by Benita Dieperink. Wait til you hear the keynote speakers and the breakout presentations! And then there’s all the behind the scenes work — Krista Post, PPSM Director, is in charge of inviting sponsors and exhibitors. Take a look! http://www.postpartum.net/News-and-Events/PSI-2013-Conference-Minneapolis-MN-/PSI-2013-Conference-Sponsors-Exhibitors.aspx ?]
Q: Do you have some professional mentoring-type advice to those clinicians who are working tirelessly in the perinatal mood disorders world?
Find each other! First of all, join PSI. You’ll have access to listservs where you can get information, ideas, and support. Build your community of clinicians locally, too. This is satisfying work, but it can be intense. You need company from others; you need to learn from and teach others.
Go to conferences and workshops together and hash over what you’ve heard: how does the evidence of research fit with what happens in your classroom or office? How can your practice be informed by it?
Remember to see the whole person you’re working with, that while a diagnosis may be critical to getting her the help she needs, she’s far more than that diagnosis.
Hone your therapeutic skills, not just your knowledge of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (critical as well, of course). Be expansive and creative in your thinking. Take into account what her symptoms and stresses mean to her, what being a mother means to her.
Be careful with yourself. Can you choreograph your scheduling so that you are not seeing the clients who are most depressed on the same day? Take breathing spaces in your day, your week, your practice. Easier said than done, for me, but worth returning to with intention and action.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Even though I’m an introvert, I get jazzed for the PSI Conferences. Look for me at the Civic Center in Minneapolis in June! It is the perfect time to visit Minnesota. Plan some extra time to drive up to Lake Superior or Lake Itasca (headwaters of the Mississippi) or walk along the paths above the Mississippi in Minneapolis or St. Paul. (yes, we love our bodies of water)
You can also find me soon at my website, Mothers Matter — http://mothersmattermn.wordpress.com/ I haven’t devoted much time to writing lately and I’ve been missing that, so I’ll be adding a section of poetry — some poems from my chapbook What Other Worlds: Postpartum Poems, some from famous authors, some from new authors (see guidelines for submission).
Thanks so much, Kathy, for doing this series of interviews. I can’t wait to see the next one.
Thank you for your valuable time & input!
See you in Minneapolis!