MISSOULA – This fall, University of Montana students can learn more about how the field of social work addresses women’s health care from new School of Social Work faculty member Jessica Liddell.
Liddell, originally from Logan, Utah, holds master’s degrees in social work and public health from Tulane University. For the past few years, she has worked with Indigenous women studying reproductive health along the Gulf Coast and recently earned her doctorate from Tulane.
“When it came time to look for a job, [UM] seemed like a great fit because of the opportunity to work with Indigenous tribes in the area and on rural health issues,” Liddell said. “The school seems to have a really strong commitment to social justice, which is something that's important to me.”
With extensive experience working for nonprofits internationally, Liddell describes herself as an interdisciplinary scholar “with the heart of a social worker.” Her work centers on reproductive health care, especially among minority populations. She shared some of her insights with UM News.
UM News: What was something interesting you discovered through your research?
Liddell: Because the tribe I previously worked with is state recognized and not federally recognized, they don’t have access to a lot of resources, so that really puts them at a disadvantage.
A really important thing is the resilience. Social workers talk about and identify problems, but we also really want to make sure we honor the strengths of the people we work with. I interviewed women, and all of them have the most amazing stories about trying to pass down traditional knowledge. A lot are healers trying to pass that knowledge to their children.
Even though there are a lot of barriers, they step up and take care of each other – even people who aren’t immediate family. So it’s like, “Okay this person needs to go to a dialysis appointment. It's 40 miles away. Who’s going to drive them?”
You mention reproductive justice a lot. Could you explain what it means?
Liddell: It’s something I’m really passionate about. Reproductive justice is the right to have children, the right to not have children and the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments.
For a lot of women, especially minority women, their ability to have children is often suppressed. For example, there’ve been a lot of instances, especially for Indigenous women, where doctors will do sterilizations on them. They’ll go in, they’ll give birth, and then they wake up and can’t have any more children. They’ll have a hysterectomy that wasn’t medically indicated, or they’ll have long-term birth control implanted that has to be removed by doctors.
In the South, we have a lot of oil production, and its production is pretty toxic with a lot of chemicals. There’s a place called Cancer Alley, where children are seeing [high] rates of asthma and cancer, and multiple populations are getting reproductive cancers. And less-privileged women end up having to raise children in these environments that are unsafe.
Right now there's a lot of concern because African-American women are dying during childbirth at rates that are insane, like three, four or five times the rates of white women, depending on where they are located, and with worse rates than we had 30 years ago.
I think a lot of it is providers not listening to women of color. For example, having eclampsia is something that kills a lot of women, which is issues with your blood pressure. It can get caught and treated relatively easily, but only if a provider is really paying attention to their patient when they’re saying “I have a headache or I feel a little dizzy.” Too often those signs get missed, and they end up hemorrhaging out or having a stroke.
What were other populations you worked with while abroad?
Liddell: I worked with orphan children in Bolivia and Nepal. I also worked an organization called 88bikes, which gets girls who have been sexually trafficked bikes so they would have more opportunities to go to school to attend job training.
In Ethiopia, I worked with mothers with HIV on ways to prevent transmission to children. And then I did a lot related to maternal health care in Ethiopia as well.
In New Orleans, I worked with HIV-positive patients and also with injection drug users.
Do you have a preference for the population you want to work with?
Liddell: I’m mostly now interested in maternal health care. I’ll want to continue working on Indigenous women’s health care concerns but I also think incarcerated women and women in immigration detention have a lot of maternal health care needs that aren’t being met.
One reason I came to Montana is I’m passionate about rural health care needs. Montana is considered a maternal health care desert in that there are large portions of the state where it's really difficult to get high-quality maternal health care.
Why is this topic important to study in Montana? Why have a class on this for college students?
Liddell: There are so many Indigenous populations in Montana and in the West. I think it’s something really important that students – even if they don’t think they’re going to necessarily work directly with Indigenous tribes or people – need to have knowledge on.
In general, social workers need to know more about reproductive justice, because even though it doesn’t seem like social workers do public health, we actually do provide a large portion of reproductive health services through counseling and referrals.
Also, as humans, we will all know someone that gives birth. You will be impacted by your family with relatives, with people you work with.
I recently had a son. He’s a year and a half old now, but only because I studied childbirth and I knew to say, “OK, I don't want an epidural until this point,” or “I don’t want this kind of thing done,” was I able to advocate for myself. I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
How do you think the pandemic has impacted reproductive health access?
Liddell: I think the pandemic has had good and negative impacts on maternal health. I think virtual health services like telemedicine is becoming a bit more mainstream now and can potentially be really beneficial.
In other ways, it’s made it harder, especially for women who are in controlling or abusive relationships, because they don’t see a provider face-to-face and get referred to services. It can be really hard too for isolation, postpartum depression, and the support you need when you give birth. I think that is missing right now for a lot of women and especially in the last year.
I’m hoping we can keep some of the good things, but then also go back to some of that in-person support.
As you arrive at UM, what are you most excited about?
Liddell: I’m excited to work with faculty who really care about social justice issues. That’s one thing that brought me to the School of Social Work in Montana. The faculty really care about who they work with, and they care about the students.
I’m excited to work on my research projects and make new connections. There is actually a lot of cool work being done right now in Montana about rural maternal health issues.
Since I have been in the South working with state tribes, I’m excited to see the concerns of federally recognized tribes and tribes in the West.
I’m excited to teach students why research matters. I want to get them to see why it’s cool, to be able to share my passion with new students. I really wanted a career in social work because of that commitment to working with people and being in a helping profession. I like students in social work because they go into it for the right reasons.
This fall, Liddell will teach Human Behavior in the Social Environment.
For those interested in Indigenous or Africa-American women’s health, Liddell recommends reading “Reproductive Justice” by Barbara Gurr, “Killing the Black Body” by Dorothy Roberts and “Reproduction on the Reservation” by Brianna Theobald.
To learn more about UM’s School of Social Work programs, visit https://health.umt.edu/socialwork/.
Contact: Jessica Liddell, faculty member, UM School of Social Work, firstname.lastname@example.org.