The Good Life

A nurs­ing pro­fes­sor makes it her mission to im­prove men­tal health ser­vices for im­mi­grants.

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Martha Ross mross@ba­yare­anews­

“I tell them a lot about my­self, howmy life isn’t per­fect ei­ther. I think they are tired of be­ing told what to do by peo­ple whose cir­cum­stances are a lot­more fa­vor­able than them­selves.”


A group of women sit in a loose cir­cle, chat­ting in Span­ish about stress, con­flict res­o­lu­tion, pos­i­tive dis­ci­pline and rais­ing chil­dren to have a strong sense of self-worth.

At the cen­ter of the cir­cle is Rosa Maria Stern­berg, an as­sis­tant ad­junct pro­fes­sor at UC San Fran­cisco’s School of Nurs­ing, who vol­un­teers to teach the class ev­ery Fri­day morn­ing at Con­cord’s Meadow Homes El­e­men­tary School.

Stern­berg, 59, is an im­mi­grant her­self, from Chile. She has made it her mission to im­prove men­tal health ser­vices for Latina im­mi­grants.

In the classes, Stern­berg tries to recre­ate the Latino tra­di­tion of the plática, or con­ver­sa­tion, where peo­ple of all ages in a fam­ily or a vil­lage get to­gether to just chat, open up and work to­gether on solv­ing prob­lems.

“I tell them a lot about my­self, how my life isn’t per­fect ei­ther,” says Stern­berg, who has fam­ily mem­bers who have strug­gled with men­tal ill­ness. “I think they are tired of be­ing told

what to do by peo­ple whose cir­cum­stances are a lot more fa­vor­able than them­selves.”

Stern­berg grew up in Chile, where her par­ents set­tled af­ter flee­ing the Span­ish Civil War in the 1930s. At 20, she moved to the United States alone, know­ing lit­tle English. Her par­ents were ea­ger for her to es­cape the re­pres­sive regime of Pres­i­dent Au­gusto Pinochet.

“The coun­try was lit­er­ally in sham­bles, and my par­ents were very con­cerned about the fu­ture,” she says.

She es­caped, but she never saw her fa­ther again.

In the United States, Stern­berg mar­ried, raised three sons and moved to Florida where she and her hus­band ran preschools. Dur­ing those years, she also earned her bach­e­lor’s de­gree in nurs­ing.

While she set­tled into life in the United States, she never got over the feel­ing that she didn’t re­ally be­long any­where.

She de­scribes it as “an iden­tity cri­sis that doesn’t re­ally go away.”

At age 49, she de­cided to go back to school and earn a mas­ter’s de­gree and doc­tor­ate.

She knew ad­vanced de­grees and re­search ex­pe­ri­ence would give her the cred­i­bil­ity to cre­ate pro­grams to im­prove men­tal health ser­vices for im­mi­grant women. And, she says, she’s al­ways been a cu­ri­ous per­son.

“I want to know why cer­tain things hap­pen a cer­tain way and what can be done about it,” she says.

To a large ex­tent, her con­cern about women’s men­tal health was in­spired by the nan­nies of her af­flu­ent preschool clients. Those nan­nies were im­mi­grants and “transna­tional moth­ers,” women who left be­hind their chil­dren in their home coun­tries to find work in the United States.

For her doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion at Florida At­lantic Uni­ver­sity, Stern­berg chron­i­cled the plight of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants like Beatriz, who grew up in ex­treme poverty in El Sal­vador and made the per­ilous Mex­ico-U.S. bor­der cross­ing to come to Amer­ica.

Beatriz’s hope was to pro­vide a bet­ter life for her two chil­dren, whom she hadn’t seen in four years be­cause it’s too danger­ous for her to re­turn for vis­its. Beatriz de­scribed the toll the long sep­a­ra­tion took on her.

“I cry all the time,” she told Stern­berg. “I need to touch them … to smell them … to feel them. It is tear­ing my heart.”

Stern­berg moved to the Bay Area in late 2009 for a post­doc­toral fel­low­ship at UC San Fran­cisco. There she ex­panded her re­search to study lev­els of de­pres­sion among midlife Lati­nas. Through a friend, she also be­came ac­quainted with Mon­u­ment cor­ri­dor or­ga­ni­za­tions work­ing to im­prove health care and work­force ser­vices to lo­cal res­i­dents.

This past year, Stern­berg, who is on the board of di­rec­tors for Mon­u­ment Im­pact, re­ceived a grant to train and study the ef­fec­tive­ness of pro­mo­tores, or lay com­mu­nity mem­bers, in pro­vid­ing ba­sic men­tal health ser­vices to 50 women and men in the Mon­u­ment cor­ri­dor in Con­cord.

Ac­cord­ing to pre­lim­i­nary re­sults, those 50 peo­ple re­ported lower lev­els of de­pres­sion and stress af­ter at­tend­ing eight-week work­shops led by the pro­mo­tores.

“She’s a per­son who re­ally cares about the Latino com­mu­nity and specif­i­cally the im­mi­grant com­mu­nity,” says Mike Van Hofwe­gen, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Mon­u­ment Im­pact. “She’s also a pro­fes­sional who un­der­stands the big­ger pic­ture of what we’re work­ing to­ward re­gard­ing health care, civic en­gage­ment and eco­nomic devel­op­ment.”

Stern­berg says the need to pro­vide cul­tur­ally ap­pro­pri­ate men­tal health ser­vices to Latina women is a grow­ing public health con­cern. This is cer­tainly true in the Mon­u­ment cor­ri­dor neigh­bor­hood, where many res­i­dents are im­mi­grants who strug­gle with poverty, cul­tural iso­la­tion and other is­sues that make life dif­fi­cult.

Lati­nas are known to ex­pe­ri­ence de­pres­sion at twice the rate as their male coun­ter­parts, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health, but few Latino men or women reach out to men­tal health spe­cial­ists be­cause of stigma, con­cerns about pri­vacy, and a lack of cul­tur­ally ap­pro­pri­ate and af­ford­able ser­vices.

Ig­nor­ing the men­tal health needs of Amer­ica’s grow­ing Latino pop­u­la­tion — num­ber­ing around 57 mil­lion — will “have a ma­jor im­pact in the coun­try,” says Stern­berg. She cites a re­cent Econ­o­mist sur­vey show­ing that men­tal ill­nesses ac­count for more suf­fer­ing in rich coun­tries than heart dis­ease, stroke or can­cer. And, men­tal ill­nesses cost na­tions bil­lions in treat­ment, lost pro­duc­tiv­ity and dis­abil­ity pay­ments.

Stern­berg says moth­ers with un­treated de­pres­sion raise chil­dren who are at in­creased risk for de­pres­sion and other health dis­or­ders, drug abuse and crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties.

“Th­ese are the moth­ers of the young pop­u­la­tion of this coun­try, the fu­ture work­force of this coun­try.”

Back in the cir­cle, Stern­berg brings up is­sues and the women re­spond by shar­ing their sto­ries in the group or ap­proach­ing her pri­vately. They talk about the sad­ness of living far from their home coun­tries, feel­ing cut off from main­stream Amer­i­can cul­ture and the dif­fi­cul­ties of rais­ing chil­dren who are be­com­ing much more “Amer­i­can­ized” than their moth­ers.

Even though she’s be­come a pub­lished scholar af­fil­i­ated with a ma­jor uni­ver­sity, Stern­berg says she can re­late to her Meadow Homes stu­dents. For one thing, her suc­cess was three decades in com­ing. Her ed­u­ca­tion, for in­stance, took a back seat to rais­ing a fam­ily and earn­ing a living.

But she’s also a mother and an im­mi­grant who felt like she had no choice but to leave her home coun­try.

Ruth An­ge­les, who im­mi­grated from Colom­bia 14 years ago, makes time to come to the class be­fore catch­ing a BART train to get to her of­fice job for the Arch­dio­cese of San Fran­cisco. She likes be­ing in a place where she can talk about sur­viv­ing an abu­sive mar­riage and try­ing, on her own, to raise one son, 14, who is dis­abled, and an­other, 17, who is strug­gling in school.

Other women in the class are transna­tional moth­ers, with chil­dren in Con­cord and older chil­dren back in Mex­ico or Cen­tral Amer­ica, Stern­berg says. Th­ese women, Stern­berg says, felt they had no choice but to leave their chil­dren.

“Those were the cards they were dealt. They say, ‘ We’re moth­ers. We sac­ri­fice.’ ”

Stern­berg plans to con­tinue of­fer­ing her par­ent­ing classes next school year and to work with lo­cal hos­pi­tals to ex­pand the pro­mo­tore pro­gram.

“I’m hop­ing to spread this to other com­mu­ni­ties and maybe in­flu­ence pol­icy,” she says. “That’s what we re­searchers do. We want to find pro­grams that work and change poli­cies to ben­e­fit peo­ple.”


Rosa Maria Stern­berg teaches a par­ent­ing class for Lati­nas at Meadow Homes El­e­men­tary School in Con­cord.

Bernardo Wence, 3, sits with his mother, Thelma, dur­ing Stern­berg’s par­ent­ing class. Dur­ing the class, Stern­berg tells sto­ries about her own life.


Rosa Maria Stern­berg im­mi­grated to the U.S. from Chile. She says set­tling in a new na­tion can cause “an iden­tity cri­sis that doesn’t re­ally go away.”

Ruth An­ge­les, an im­mi­grant from Colom­bia, holds notes she made to re­mind her what to ask Stern­berg.

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