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Kausler and team research maternal mental health with $1.9M grant

It may seem unlikely, but depression is the most common complication of childbirth. Unfortunately, less than a quarter of women diagnosed with it receive treatment, and only 6% continue therapy.

A team of nursing researchers aims to change that, thanks to a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Headshot of Ryoko Kausler smiling.
Ryoko Kausler (’13) developed an interest in maternal mental health research during her time as an undergraduate research assistant.

School of Nursing assistant professor Ryoko Kausler is part of the research group led by University of Utah professor Gwen Latendresse. Their study investigates the feasibility of using remote technology – like video calls and online forums – as preventative mental health treatment for perinatal depression (depression connected to pregnancy).

Their three-year project has the potential to greatly impact communities across Idaho and Utah, given the area’s significant rural and minority populations.

“They are the ones at a higher risk of managing the perinatal depression and anxiety because they may have lack of resources and also limited access to healthcare,” Kausler said. “We want to provide the intervention regardless of their geographical location.”

Moving away from stigma

Kausler, a 2013 Boise State alum, developed an interest in nursing research when she was earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing. Attending conferences as a research assistant, she noted that maternal mental health was never discussed.

Later in her career, she asked a psychiatrist how frequently they cared for patients with postpartum depression. They said never, claiming it wasn’t an issue.

But from her experience working as a psychiatric mental health nurse, Kausler knew this wasn’t true. So her passion for nursing research became grounded in perinatal mental health.

“I noticed how maternal mental health is not discussed,” she said. “And it’s still stigmatized. But research can be a powerful tool to improve the care of the people.”

Designing around easy-access tools

Kausler and the research team aren’t investigating whether or not digital mental health treatments work (research evidence says they do). Instead, they want to know how feasible it is to deliver these treatments through an online program within a healthcare system’s patient portal.

Why? Patient focus groups voiced the need for easier access to resources.

They want care that is less time-consuming, more convenient, and congruent with their sociocultural background. Digital treatments can offer this. Additionally, using a health system’s portal streamlines the web locations patients need to keep track of; they can find their mental health care right alongside their other remote care resources.

Patients also made it clear that they need more than educational content alone, so the study incorporates elements to foster community. These include discussion boards and video conferences with other patients. The team will then assess what form of digital content is most effective and most often used.

Research with a lasting impact

The team wants to know if integrating mental health care within the health system’s portal increases patients’ use of the tools. They’ll also look at which patients use it the most between urban, rural and Latino populations.

Kausler is passionate about knowing the real-life impact of the digital tool. She wants to make sure patients who need the remote therapy have access to it and actually use it beyond just collecting data for the study.

“If we establish using the internet platform to deliver a mindfulness-based practice is feasible and acceptable, but if the critical personnel doesn’t use it, that’s a problem,” she said.

Her goal is for lasting buy-in between clinicians (to promote the digital resources) and patients (to use the tools they have access to) for overall maternal mental health improvement.

More nursing research at Boise State

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Nursing Research of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number 1RF-1NR020841-01. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. The grant was awarded to the University of Utah College of Nursing; Boise State University is a sub-awardee to the contract.