Great Expectations: Dalia Alhasanat envisioned her ultimate goal – and achieved it

After successfully defending her doctoral dissertation on the topic of postpartum depression and acculturation among immigrant women of Arabic descent and earning her Ph.D. from Wayne State University in spring 2017, Dalia Alhasanat received the offer of her dreams. She is now a tenure-track assistant professor in the College of Nursing.

“During my first visit to Michigan for my Ph.D. program orientation, I knew Wayne State was right for me,” says Alhasanat. “I found everyone very welcoming and supportive, and knew it was the best place for my research.”

She had considered staying at the University of Pittsburgh, where she’d started her master’s program and worked as a research assistant. But Detroit called to her. 

Alhasanat says that the College of Nursing’s increased focus on infant mental health was key. As an undergraduate at the University of Jordan, she saw something during a postpartum ward clinical experience that stuck with her. “Many women were happy to have their babies, and excited even though they had experienced a lot of pain during delivery, while other new mothers were withdrawn and sad,” she says. “It touched my heart to see women who said the labor pains were forgotten once they could hold their babies, but others were holding babies and not feeling happy and didn’t know why.” She wondered what the difference was, and how it could be remedied or possibly prevented.

Then she moved from her home country, Palestine, to the United States to pursue her master’s at the University of Pittsburgh and experienced pregnancy for herself. Her first son, Amar, was born in 2010 as she was still adjusting to a new world as an immigrant. 

“It’s not easy being pregnant and having a baby. There are a lot of hormonal changes that affect you psychologically,” she says. “Add to that being an immigrant — having no support from friends and family, being relatively alone in a new country. There are so many more stressors.”

Alhasanat knew the warning signs and felt fortunate to not experience postpartum depression herself. “My husband was by my side the whole time — he woke up in the middle of the night to feed the baby so I could sleep,” she says. “Immigrant women often experience serious mental health problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and psychosis due to lack of social support, marginalization and minority status, painful memories, low socioeconomic status, poor physical health, and difficulty adapting to host cultures.”

The experience of pregnancy and early motherhood while adapting to a new culture gave her further insight into
an area of study that she was already well on her way toward exploring. 

Alhasanat found that in the U.S., 12 to 20 percent of women develop postpartum depression, defined as depression that occurs within the first year after childbirth. When she reviewed the scientific literature, she found that among immigrant women, the rate of postpartum depression was closer to 37 percent — and up to 60 percent among Hispanic women. “But I couldn’t find research articles about postpartum depression among immigrant women of Arabic descent,” she says. “So that was my pilot study.” 

In that pilot study, she discovered that 36 percent of participants (N=50) reported high risk for postpartum depression and also that lack of social support was a significant risk factor. In her dissertation study, she expanded her goals and included 115 women in her study to examine risk factors for postpartum depression among immigrant women of Arabic descent. 

She was in the right place. Metro Detroit is home to one of the largest, oldest and most diverse Arab American communities in the United States, with one-third of Dearborn residents of Arab heritage, according to the U.S. Census. Since the Iraq War began, more than 4,000 Iraqi refugees have settled in the area.

Alhasanat was particularly interested in studying postpartum depression because of its dangerous consequences on mothers and children. Mothers with postpartum depression experience negative emotions that can lead to insecure attachment and inadequate parenting. She says that for children, postpartum depression can result in negative cognitive outcomes including delayed cognitive development, behavioral problems and poor language development.

Looking ahead

Alhasanat had just begun her Ph.D. program at Wayne State when her second son, Tawfiq, was born 19 months after his big brother. She proceeded to juggle motherhood, Ph.D. studies, graduate teaching assistant duties and research with work on Detroit Medical Center’s medical-surgical floor because she wanted to gain clinical experience in the U.S. 

Today, she smiles at her accomplishments and knows her faculty position was worth the effort — one she says wouldn’t have been possible without the encouragement of her young sons and husband, Mohammad Khalil. “It’s my pleasure to join the faculty in a tenure-track position so I’ll have time to conduct and improve my research,” Alhasanat says. “Dean Clabo has been very supportive, along with my College of Nursing colleagues and mentors during this awesome journey.”

She plans to continue her postpartum depression research, with hopes of expanding it to look at depression during pregnancy as well. She’s planning a series of longitudinal studies to understand mothers’ experiences over time, and also looking at biomarkers in blood and saliva to explore whether certain biomarkers can help predict a woman’s likelihood of developing postpartum depression.

Long-term, Alhasanat would like to develop an intervention program that would help new immigrant mothers adapt and improve their mental health, and therefore improve infant mental health.

“One of the programs that is proposed to make a difference is home visitation, when nurses are assigned to answer questions and help the women transition to motherhood,” she says. “I’m interested in studying the impact of programs where nurses visit immigrant women during pregnancy and then again at specific times postpartum, which is key for new mothers who lack social support or have a language barrier.”

Alhasanat’s new College of Nursing colleagues applaud her drive and look forward to working alongside her. 

“We were so pleased to offer Dalia a position on our faculty after watching her successful trajectory in the college,” says Dean Laurie M. Lauzon Clabo. “She is a stellar addition to a team dedicated to improving health in our urban community and across the globe.” 

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