Providing culturally competent postpartum care for South Asian women

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As do women from a wide range of cultures, South Asian (SA) women frequently report feelings of shame associated with receiving a psychiatric diagnosis during the postpartum period because they fear it may reflect poorly on their ability to be good mothers or negatively impact their family’s reputation. To improve outcomes for these patients, clinicians should strive to provide culturally competent care. Based on our experience caring for SA women, we review several social and cultural barriers these women face when seeking psychiatric treatment, and provide approaches to incorporate into your therapeutic interactions with them.

Be aware of psychosomatic presentations. SA mothers who develop postpartum psychiatric symptoms might not present with complaints of dysphoria, crying, low energy, or suicidal thoughts. They may instead describe psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches and body pains.

Consider their hesitation to use psychiatric terms. SA women may not be comfortable using psychiatric terms such as depression or anxiety. Instead, they might respond more positively when their preferred descriptive terms (ie, sadness, worry, stress) are used by the clinicians who treat them.

Engage the partner and/or family. SA women may emphasize that they are part of a family unit, rather than regarding themselves as individuals. Thus, including family members in the treatment plan may help improve adherence.

Screen for suicide risk. Evidence suggests that young SA women have a higher rate of suicide and suicide attempts than young SA men or non-SA women.1,2 Further, they may be less willing to speak openly about it.

Ask questions about cultural or traditional forms of treatment. SA mothers, particularly those who are breastfeeding, might be wary of Western medicine and may be familiar with traditional Indian medicine practices such as herbal, homeopathic, or Ayurvedic approaches.3 These interventions may include a specified diet, use of herbal treatments, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations.When taking the patient’s history, find out which treatments she is currently using, and discuss whether she can safely continue to use them.

Do not mistake poor eye contact for lack of engagement. Because SA patients may view a physician as a source of authority, they might regard direct eye contact with a physician as being somewhat disrespectful, and they may avoid eye contact altogether.

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