Lea Berentson’s role as a clinical psychologist specializing in perinatal mental health comes with a foundation built on solving problems by preventing them.
It also comes with personal experience in heartbreak and adversity.
Berentson is now the staff psychologist at Sanford Health Obstetrics and Gynecology in Bismarck, North Dakota, with the aim to more directly address issues that come up with perinatal care.
As part of the team now at Sanford Health with an office onsite, she is a psychologist who can build better relationships with obstetricians and the patients who need her.
In other words, she is not the clinical psychologist who works on the other side of town. She’s the certified perinatal mental health professional — the only one in North Dakota — who has an office in the same building where mothers have babies.
It can make all the difference.
“It gives women more direct access to the mental health care they need,” Berentson said. “A typical setup would be for a woman to be referred to a therapist in the community. We know the wait time for new patients can be up to three months.”
That’s way too long.
“During pregnancy it’s important that women are seen in a timely manner,” she said. “It’s more time-sensitive. One of the advantages of this system is that they have someone who is more readily available who may be focusing on this specific area. Seeing someone, maybe even that day, can be possible.”
Proximity is an ally, especially in cases where consultations come with urgency.
“An OB will have a patient who needs help that day — maybe they lost a pregnancy,” Berentson said. “And I’ve been able to go in the patient’s room with them and helped provide counseling for those moments. It gives our patients more access.”
Berentson paying it forward
When Berentson visits with a patient about having a baby and being a mom, she summons both professional training and personal experience.
As a third-grader she learned she was going to lose her leg to osteogenic sarcoma, a form of bone cancer that could have easily taken her life.
Then her mother left the family a few years later and never came back.
She also endured a pair of particularly difficult but successful pregnancies herself as an adult.
The personal trials served only to make Berentson a more caring and understanding wife, mother and psychologist. The experiences have fostered a mantra of sorts that she tries to live by herself, while also passing it forward in her profession.
“It’s important that people know that they don’t have to stay stuck in the trauma from the past,” Berentson said. “We have choices to move forward and to create different experiences for our own children and our families.”
Adversity at a young age
Berentson, whose family moved from North Dakota to Arizona when she was a second grader, was playing soccer with a friend at the school playground in third grade and she tripped and broke her femur.
It’s normally a difficult bone to break but X-rays and a biopsy explained more. She was diagnosed with a form of cancer known as osteogenic sarcoma (OTS). It was why such a sturdy bone broke on what appeared to be a fairly harmless playground mishap.
When chemotherapy failed, doctors amputated her leg to save her life.
She began spending a week every summer at Camp Rainbow in Arizona, where she got to know other young cancer survivors. It became a regular event. Her mom would take her shopping for supplies for camp, drop her off for a week, then pick her up a week later and take her home.
Mom says goodbye
Except a few years later, Berentson’s mom wasn’t there when it was time to go home. Berentson waited. Hours later, her father and uncle took her home and they told her mom had moved out of the house.
She would learn her mother had fallen in with the wrong people. She was addicted to meth and never returned.
“Everyone has a history leading up to where they are,” Berentson said. “I went into psychology wanting to understand people but also help people work through their trauma and create healthier lives. I spent most of my early career working with adults and adolescents who were trying to undo a lot of trauma of their past, trying to cope with their feelings and dealing with chronic mental illness stemming from early trauma.”
None of this stopped Berentson. It didn’t stop her from becoming a clinical psychologist, nor did it stop her from getting married to Dusty or having a family.
The births of daughters Meadow Elle (4) and Willow Sunshine (who will be 2 in August) both involved emergency C-sections. Lea suffered through peripartum cardiomyopathy while pregnant with Willow that was initially misdiagnosed. It’s a form of heart failure that could have killed the mother.
Berentson has taken particular interest in developing rapport with expectant mothers before the baby is born. It has the potential to ward off emotional and physical complications that can lead to more serious problems. There is a direct connection, for instance, between a mother’s mental health and a developing fetus.
“Depression can cause pre-term labor and low birth weight so it’s important that we identify these moms,” she said. “Not only can it affect the developing baby, it can also affect attachment. Once a baby is born, if Mom is depressed or really struggling with mental health issues they may not develop a healthy attachment.”
Many times, Berentson does not have the luxury of dealing with issues before they happen, nor do the mothers who are dealing with postpartum depression. It can be a tough sell to come forward. Like most mental health issues, it can carry a stigma in the minds of those afflicted that can complicate a decision to consent to treatment.
“A lot of moms try to downplay their symptoms,” Berentson said. “Or maybe they’re not aware that what they’re experiencing is not normal postpartum adjustment so they don’t know if they should ask for help.”
Estimates on the prevalence of postpartum depression and anxiety disorders range from 1-in-7 to 1-in-5. Either way it’s not surprising then that Berentson’s professional counsel is in high demand. Since moving into this role in January as a full-time psychologist addressing perinatal needs, the call is in for her help every day.
“Even within a month of me being here, my practice is completely booked,” she said. “I’m trying to leave time during the day to see crisis patients and I also do hospital consults. We integrate mental health in the world of physical health. It definitely makes sense.”
Berentson’s own past has given her insight into helping others cope with theirs. This has applied to her entire career as a clinical psychologist but particularly so since she devoted her career to helping those dealing with childbirth.
“We can take what is good from our childhood and try to re-do things that aren’t so good,” she said. “When we become a mother we do often take a hard look at our past and think ‘Okay, what kind of mother do I want to be? What kind of parent do I wish I had? What kind of parent do I want for my children?’ We don’t have to be stuck in those patterns.”
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