The Good Life
A nursing professor makes it her mission to improve mental health services for immigrants.
“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.”
— ROSA MARIA STERNBERG
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.