Dr. Sarah Allen Sheds Light on Maternal Awareness Month. | Chicago North Shore Moms

In honor of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month in Illinois, Chicago North Shore Moms expresses gratitude for dedicated professionals like Dr. Sarah Allen, Director of the Postpartum Depression Alliance of Illinois. Dr. Allen’s journey as a young mom from England to Chicago fueled her commitment to aiding new mothers both through her psychotherapy practice where she specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and through her volunteer and advocacy work throughout Illinois. As the founder of the PPD IL Alliance, she passionately advocates for accessible resources and support, emphasizing the importance of awareness, prevention, and treatment. Through her extensive research on trauma and postpartum depression, Dr. Allen offers a holistic approach to care, ensuring no mother faces these challenges alone. In our exclusive interview, Dr. Allen shares insights into the PPD IL Alliance and avenues for new mothers to access the support they deserve. Welcome, Dr. Allen.

 

Dr. Sarah Allen and the PPD IL Alliance staff


Hi Dr. Allen. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your family. Where are you originally from, what brought you to Northbrook?

Hi Ellie, I am originally from England, and we moved to the Chicago area about 26 years ago. My husband’s job at the time asked if he would like to move here for 2-3 years and it seemed like a fun adventure for us and our eldest child, who was 6 at the time. Well, we really liked it here, and two more children later, we have stayed here and all three of my kids have grown up in this area.

 

You are the founder of Postpartum Depression Alliance of Illinois (PPD IL Alliance). What is the pivotal role it plays in supporting maternal mental health?

I had experience working with new moms in the UK and training healthcare workers in local communities to identify and help women experiencing postpartum issues. I was very interested in women’s issues and motherhood as I completed my doctorate while my son was 2-5 years old. My dissertation was on Traumatic Childbirth and Postnatal (postpartum) Depression and was later published in the Journal of Reproductive & Infant Psychology. When I moved to the USA, I was struck how women here were discharged from hospital after having a baby and they had little to no community support, or emotional help, for this huge life transition. In my first few months here I reached out to other therapists in the area hoping to meet people who share my passion for working with new moms, and I eventually found someone who ran a postpartum support group. She told me about an organization called Postpartum Support International (PSI) and I went to their annual conference in California in 1997 and came back as the Illinois PSI chapter coordinator, a role I had for 17 years.

In that role I went out to doctors’ offices and hospitals to raise awareness about postpartum depression and talked to them about how to screen for it and how to talk to new moms about it. I put up fliers about PSI in waiting rooms with my cell phone number on it and I began getting calls from women across Illinois needing support and resources in their area. This was 25 years ago and most doctors then hadn’t really heard of postpartum depression. I had one pediatrician look me in the eye and say “We don’t have that here dear” to which I replied, “Oh yes you do, you just aren’t talking about it!.”

 

You have an impressive background in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and are renowned for your expertise in treating anxiety, depression, and other related issues. Could you share how you became interested in specializing in these areas?

I completed my Psychology doctorate in the UK in the 1990s and learned my clinical skills in the National Health Service (NHs), which you may know, provides free treatment to everyone in the UK. We were thrown in to treat people very quickly and learned through theoretical training and a very hands-on approach and good supervision. At the time, the primary theoretical approach taught to us was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as it is short-term and effective, and the NHS needed patients treated quickly and effectively. In addition, I have nearly 30 years of clinical experience in the field and of course continuing education.

I like CBT as an approach as it can get to the root of problems quickly and can be applied to many different issues such as anxiety, depression, chronic health and pain, eating disorders, parenting and relationships. It offers concrete strategies that people can start using straightway which empowers my clients.

It is important to note though that I don’t think just using a cookie cutter CBT approach is effective. I have also trained in other types of therapeutic techniques and have many years of experience of learning what things tend to help people. Everyone who comes to see me has their own personal history, personality traits and unique issues and so I take from CBT what I think would be helpful, and we test strategies to see if it works or not for that person. If not, we will try other approaches.

I believe therapy is collaborative. I have many years of experience and knowledge of clinical strategies, and my clients knows themself better than anyone, so we work together to come up with a treatment plan that is effective for them.

 

May has been proclaimed as Maternal Mental Health Awareness month in Illinois, which is a significant achievement. How did this come to be and what is the impact it has had?

After a few years of providing support by myself, and the addition of twins to our now family of 5, I found it was hard to do this alone, so I founded a non-profit organization called the PPD IL Alliance. I trained 7 volunteers, and we now have support volunteers who each take one day of the week and answer emails or return calls. They are the most supportive, warm, and friendly women I know.

Our mission at PPD IL Alliance is to promote awareness, prevention, and treatment of maternal mental health issues throughout the state of Illinois. For the past 21 years I have worked with all of the Illinois Governors to proclaim May as Maternal Mental Health Awareness month in Illinois every year. We use this May (the month Mother’s Day is in) and the proclamation to try to bring awareness about how 15-20% of women experience maternal related mood & anxiety disorders and that this can happen anytime during pregnancy through the first year after having a baby.

I want to stress that pregnancy/postpartum disorders can happen to anyone and are nothing to feel guilty about. I really want women to know that they are not alone, that there are effective treatments, and the PPD IL Alliance volunteers and myself are all here to help them on their journey to feeling themselves again.

 

As the director of the Postpartum Depression Alliance of Illinois (PPD IL Alliance), what are some of the key services and resources you provide to mothers struggling with postpartum depression and related conditions?

Our volunteers provide mom-to-mom support to anyone who leaves a voicemail or sends us an email. The volunteers help women find resources local to them. Our website has a lot of information about the different types of maternal mental health issues, symptoms, what helps, and what to look for when choose a therapist to help you. I write many blog posts for the website and try to cover as many relevant issues as I can. I am also frequently interviewed for media articles about maternal mental health and I use this to increase awareness and lessen stigma. Women often think they are the only person going through this and that all the other moms are coping, and they aren’t. It is useful to normalize how difficult it can be during pregnancy and after having a baby and offer help and resources they can utilize.

 

How do you approach issues related to postpartum depression and do you have any resources for our moms to reference now? 

I feel that there are times during a woman’s life when she might need some extra support. Maybe her current life experiences and stressors are especially difficult to manage alone, or she feels more stressed, overwhelmed, angrier and more frustrated than she wants to be. Miscarriage and loss are very common, as are maternal mood disorders, infertility and other issues related to our reproductive cycles such as mood and physical changes around menstruation and menopause. I don’t think there has been enough attention around these issues from the general psychological profession, but they do bring extra stress upon women in addition to societal expectations of women and all they have to manage. I have also experienced some of these issues myself in the past so I can empathize with how women are feeling but I can also help them to process what is happening, as well as provide evidence-based coping techniques tailored to each individual and what they are personally going through.

I have also authored a helpful booklet titled, “A Guide To Pregnancy & Postpartum Stress, Anxiety & Depression.” This is free, just click here to start the download. The guide covers the types and symptoms of pregnancy & postpartum mood disorders, types of professional treatment options and then highlights self-help strategies and things you can do to start feeling better. Additional booklets on www.drsarahallen.com are titled, “Simple Steps To Overcome Anxiety & Worrying,” “How To Stop Arguing With Your Child,” “Simple Steps To Overcome Emotional Eating” and “Simple Steps To Overcome Depression.”

 

 

The North Shore is home to British expats. Being originally from the UK and now living in the Chicago suburbs for the past 26 years, how do you perceive the differences in approaches to mental health between the two countries?

The biggest difference is that in the UK Clinical Psychologists are employed by the local health districts and provide services for free. Also, there are a lot more community based free resources. Going back to maternal health, I was astonished when I first moved here how isolated women are. When a mom comes home from hospital with a baby in the UK, the midwife visits her at home for several days and then a health visitor, who is interested in both the baby and the mom, comes to the house and check that they are doing okay and if not, links them up to local free or low-cost resources. No matter what type of area they live in, it is all free. This sounds great but there are of course negative things like very long waiting lists for mental health related services. Often people suffer a long time before they get help.

 

You’ve presented at national and international conferences and have published research on postpartum mood disorders. What are some of the most significant findings you’ve discovered in your research, and how do they inform your practice?

In the 1990s it wasn’t accepted that women can have trauma from childbirth. I got a lot of push backs when I wanted to research the connection between traumatic birth experiences and the development of postnatal depression and I was told only war veterans or victims of rape or car accidents get PTSD. I knew that wasn’t true from my work with postpartum moms. My research was one of the first studies that wasn’t just anecdotal and I found that feeling out of control during childbirth, pain and fear for one’s own or the baby’s life during labor can cause trauma. Importantly, treating trauma symptoms requires different strategies than treating postpartum depression and women who presented as distressed in the weeks or months after birth were not adequately treated. Many women have both trauma and PPD but it is only when you address and process trauma from the birth experience that treatment for PPD is effective.

 

Dr. Allen, How do our moms reach out to you for support?

I have a lot of information in blog posts and free downloadable booklets about pregnancy and postpartum mood disorders, general anxiety, depression, eating disorders, parenting, relationships and women’s issues such as menopause, infertility/loss and managing the stress and overwhelm that women often experience on my personal website. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

I also write and share articles relating to maternal mental health on the PPD Alliance of IL website. You can also read the May proclamation and information about all the different types of maternal health issues, symptoms and what helps on the website. There are contact forms on there to reach our support volunteers and myself.

 

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