Mental health experts weigh in on how ruling touches those affected
The reversal of the most significant reproductive rights ruling in U.S. history has left Roe v. Wade supporters to grapple with what’s next. The majority of Americans support legal abortions at least most of the time, repeated polls have shown, with 61% saying that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.
Many anxiety-inducing questions remain, including not only how accessible abortion will remain outside of blue states but also what civil rights precedent the Supreme Court could strike down next.
The Los Angeles Times spoke to three people who specialize in mental health care and its relation to abortion about ways to process the news of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and what the mental health impacts may be:
Rachel Dyer, board chair for Exhale Pro-Voice, a nonprofit organization that provides abortion support.
Cynthia Cerrato, holistic marriage and family therapist in LA County who specializes in treating maternal mental health issues.
Claudia Parada, an associate marriage and family therapist who specializes in treating multiple components of people’s identities, including race, sexuality and decisions around parenting.
Their written responses have been edited for brevity.
Q: What should people understand about the mental health fallout after the overturn of Roe v. Wade?
Dyer: We know from scientific research that facing barriers when seeking abortions, like needing to travel to another state, delaying care to save up for the abortion itself (as well as child care, a hotel, food, gas, taking time off work), is associated with greater emotional distress.
With the overturn of Roe v. Wade, we can expect this sort of emotional distress to impact more people more significantly, as states now have the power to pass laws making abortions illegal.
Again, we know from scientific research that if you need an abortion and are unable to access one, your mental health will suffer as well as your physical, relational and financial health.
Lastly, the literal existence of this Dobbs decision is emotionally harmful as it perpetuates abortion stigma. We know that abortions themselves do not cause emotional distress; abortion stigma does, and that stigma, at the level of our institutions and government, is only going to get worse. This will harm not only the emotional well-being of people who will need abortions in the future, but people who have already had abortions, too.
Cerrato: What I’d like for the community to understand about the mental health fallout of this decision are the natural responses and feelings that we will experience. Normalizing and validating these feelings and behaviors will be vital to our collective healing process during this time.
The first thing that I feel most will experience is fear. Fear of what is next. For example, I’ve already heard individuals concerned about if samesex marriage is next to be overturned. Anger and a tremendous amount of anxiety are other feelings that most of us will experience as a result of our uncertain future.
Parada: The impact of this decision will touch the lives of every generation in this lifetime and many generations to come.
The long-term adverse effects of the internalization of this message is that women and people with uteruses may believe that they don’t deserve to have that freedom of choice or power. As a Latinx woman, I see this internalization with older women in my family that believe we should not have the right to choose how and when we birth because they have been conditioned to trust the “experts” to dictate what’s best for their health in all areas — mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually.
Q: What kinds of challenges and experiences have you been hearing from your patients before and after the overturn? C:
The challenges and experiences that my clients have been experiencing before and after the overturn of Roe v. Wade are the same feelings that they have been feeling these last two to three years. These are feelings of hopelessness and a sense of despair.
Most of my clients have a shared common “coping” mechanism that, while we know isn’t healthy, is protective to a certain extent. That coping mechanism is feeling a sense of numbness, feeling like they’re dissociating from all of the recent traumatic events that we’ve experienced (COVID-19, the Uvalde mass shooting in Texas, etc.).
Most of my clients have also expressed a feeling of rage mixed up with helplessness. Rage at the impact of white supremacy and a patriarchal society on our communities and helplessness, feeling like there’s nothing they can do to change our current climate. Most of my clients are also experiencing a sense of “Are we ever going to get a break?”
P: It’s not normal to have power and autonomy taken from you and your body. Many folks have felt dissociated, at a loss and overwhelmed. Especially because many workplaces aren’t creating safe spaces to discuss the impact of this decision and often people are asked to continue with their lives, business as usual.
Q: What are some ways to healthily process the overturn of Roe v. Wade? D:
Processing the news ... is going to look differently for everyone. First, I would encourage folks to slow down or pause, and check in with themselves. What are they feeling? What are they needing? Have they had enough water today? Have they been scrolling through their Twitter feeds for hours, reading news and hot takes? Being gentle with yourself, meeting your basic needs and doing things that bring you joy are essential.
C: Finding a safe space, such as a therapist, a community group or wellness collective, seeking spiritual guidance, engaging in rituals and healthy activities are great ways of processing the news of the overturn. It’s important to also point out that processing doesn’t always have to be verbal. Spending time in nature is always medicinal, as well as movement. Not only is it grounding, but also increases our serotonin level, which helps increase hope. Moments of silence are also a healthy practice that increases our capacity to be able to hold space for our feelings and thoughts.
Most of all, what I’d like for the community to remember is that in order to remain hopeful and active in creating change, we must continue to center and prioritize our joy even amidst an uncertain chaotic world.