Celebrating women's history month

Meet 10 Change Agents for Maternal Mental Health

Women play a vital role in shaping history — as well as the next generation. Because who we become starts before we’re even born, it’s everyone’s duty to ensure mothers and pregnant people are well-supported both physically and mentally throughout the perinatal period.

State of Babies data reveals that nationally, 21.9% of mothers report less than optimal mental health. And half of women diagnosed with perinatal depression do not get the treatment they need. For far too long, maternal mental health, and its impact on babies and young children, has been overlooked.

But through the hard work of parents, professionals and policymakers, the focus is changing. As a society, we’re finally addressing the uncomfortable but necessary demand to do better. This Women’s History Month we’ve put together a “Power List” of 10 remarkable women – many with mental health stories of their own – who are making history as change agents for maternal mental health support.

Our mental health begins before birth.

Elizabeth Pihlaja

Operations Director at the Foundation for a Healthy North Dakota

Elizabeth used her traumatic childhood and childbirth experience to fuel her passion as a doula and birth worker in tribal communities. Her story is the impetus behind our podcast, The Earliest, which takes a deep and personal look into mental health in the earliest years of life.

Throughout each episode, she opens up about her perinatal experience and past trauma that unexpectedly impacted her during childbirth and the newborn bonding period. She credits her work in the early childhood field for equipping her to “stop the cycle of trauma in my own life,” and she draws from personal experience when being the advocate and support person for other women and pregnant people that she so desperately needed.

“I want my kids to know peace. Even since the podcast premiered, I’ve taken it to another level. I’ve been working to accept that I deserve peace, too, and just as me, Elizabeth – not a mom, wife, sister, or daughter. Sometimes it still feels selfish, but the more I practice, it feels revolutionary to love myself that way. I hope anyone who hears season one of The Earliest and thinks, “Oh, I’ve been there!” knows they deserve peace and love, too, just for showing up.”

Jennifer Boss, MSW

Strategy and Operations Officer, ZERO TO THREE

With a wealth of experience in the infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH) field, Jennifer was featured on The Earliest as a guest expert. She explained the science behind generational trauma and its potential impact on babies’ and toddlers’ brain structure and chemistry. She also explores how other women and pregnant people like Elizabeth can be better-prepared to deal with past trauma throughout pregnancy, and better-supported through the childbirth experience.

In her early professional career, Jennifer worked as an infant mental health clinician in a variety of settings, including with teen parents and their babies. Her work involved assessing and understanding the mother’s (and father’s) own mental health needs in order to most effectively support the parent/child relationship. One of her favorite experiences was when she had opportunities to initiate work with mothers during their pregnancy, at a time when they were most open to paying attention to and taking care of their own needs as they prepared for their new baby. 

Today, her work at ZERO TO THREE allows her to bring an IECMH lens to every program she touches. 

Catherine Monk, PhD

Professor, Medical Psychology, Columbia University and ZERO TO THREE Board Member

For 20 years, Dr. Monk has contributed to the scientific evidence showing that when pregnant women experience stress, anxiety, and depression, it affects them as well as their offspring in utero.  Her current research spans interventions for postpartum depression, adverse childhood experiences in pregnant people and their effect on children even before birth and studies of pre and postnatal exposure to maternal toxic stress and neurobehavioral development. Attendees at our 2020 Conference were floored with Dr. Monk’s science plenary that highlighted her research and findings. 

“Parenting is absolutely a learned behavior with significant influences from the past and a lot of opportunities to gain new influences and training in the present. There is no one way to be a good mom.”

Markita Mays LCSW

Co-founder of EMBRACE, UCSF National Center of Excellence in Women's Health​

A recipient of our 2021 Emerging Leadership Award, Markita works to understand and expose the intergenerational patterns of race and trauma for African American families and communities. She co-created EMBRACE, a clinical program that offers Black mothers and Black pregnant people prenatal care from an intentional angle of racial consciousness, using a model of care where social and economic factors are identified and addressed. The program includes village building with other Black families, integrated behavioral healthcare, mindfulness practices and more — with the ultimate goal of supporting the creation of Black lives by reclaiming health, wellness, and self-determination for Black birthing.  

“The unacknowledged histories and harms of maternal and reproductive health care for Black women and Black birthing people are forever ringing the alarms in our bodies and our psyche. To be fully conscious of them is to be fully present with trauma and healing simultaneously.” 

DeAnn Davies, MS, CLC, C-IPMH

Department Director, HealthySteps at Summit Healthcare (Retired)

How many pediatricians’ offices do you know where mothers and postpartum people can also receive lactation support and perinatal mood screenings and support? These are just some of the many ways the HealthySteps team at Summit Healthcare, which serves rural and tribal communities in Show Low, AZ, is going above and beyond to assist parents in the exhausting and often-overwhelming early days of parenthood.

Screening for family needs is a core component of the HealthySteps model and although DeAnn’s team already had high screening rates for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), they recognized they needed to do more particularly when it came to post-partum follow-ups for those with elevated screening scores. See how DeAnn led her team to increase their rate of connecting with parents during follow-up attempts from 49% to over 67%.

Shemika Whiteside, MSSW, CSW

Founder/Executive Director, Zora's Cradle and ZERO TO THREE Fellow​

Shemika came to Louisville, KY in 2014, pregnant and with a 5 year old son, but without a permanent home. Although she had a stable job and many things in her life were going well, she still found it difficult to find the community-based resources she needed. That stress, coupled with the physical health disparities many Black women face, ultimately led to her giving birth to her baby girl, Zora, at just six months gestation. Her daughter only lived a few days.

As a social worker, she made it her mission since that day to ensure mothers and their babies have everything they need to survive — and in 2021 took that one step further when she founded Zora’s Cradle, a maternity program that assists with both physical and mental health needs. She and her team provide everything from a breastmilk bank, to career counseling, to behavioral therapy.

“Motherhood is a journey not meant to be traveled alone. It’s essential to find community and connection during pregnancy and after birth. Perinatal wellness is essential as it is much more difficult to care for yourself and another tiny, growing human if physical, systemic, and/or social barriers interfere with one’s journey.”

Lee Beers, MD, FAAP

Medical Director, Community Health and Advocacy, Children’s National Hospital and ZERO TO THREE Board Member

Lee Ann Savio Beers is dedicated to improving the mental health of children and their families nationwide. Throughout her career, she has worked to transform systems and find solutions that empower mothers on their journey to improve mental health. She maintains that pediatricians have a leading role in addressing disparities in access to mental health care, because many low-income families come to them first to address mental health concerns.

“As pediatricians, there are a few things we can do. First, ask. Parents will rarely volunteer that they are struggling, but if we make a point to ask, they are more likely to feel comfortable sharing. Even if they don’t say anything right at that moment, they will start to hear the message that we are somewhere they can come for advice or help.”

Dawn A. Yazzie, MA, NCC

Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant, Georgetown University

A mother of four children by birth and a fifth by marriage, Dawn pulls from her own motherhood journey to reclaim traditional Navajo teachings and ceremonies in order to heal multigenerational trauma. It’s the fuel for her passion in IECMH consultation, which she not only brings to programs such as the Children’s Equity Project and Southwest Human Development, but also to the Arizona Senate where she (right) and colleagues advocate for infant mental health in tribal communities. She sees perinatal health and infant mental health as directly connected in every aspect of human development — and recalls one mother in particular she helped who confided that learning about connecting with her children strengthened her ability to parent her newborn and prepare her for the emotional journey of being a new mother.

“I believe that an Infant Mental Health approach to support perinatal health in tribal communities is extremely important to re-awaken or rekindle traditional practices and ways of planning for baby’s arrival on Mother Earth.”

Lauren Underwood

U.S. Representative (D-IL) and Co-founder, Black Maternal Health Caucus

Not only is Lauren Underwood a fierce supporter of maternal health, she is also the youngest African-American woman to serve in the House, a registered nurse and former senior adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services.  

She brings her expertise to Congress, where with co-chair Alma Adams, the Black Maternal Health Caucus works to address the maternal mortality crisis with evidence-based solutions.  Most recently, the Caucus celebrated the inclusion of nearly $1 billion in maternal health priorities (including more than $10 million dedicated to mental health services) in the Fiscal Year 2022 omnibus appropriations package. 

In our statement applauding the Bill, chief policy officer, Miriam Celdrón, said this bipartisan legislation is key to advancing programs and services that make a different in the lives of our nation’s infants and toddlers.

Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW

Senior Writer, ZERO TO THREE

As a senior writer and training specialist for HealthySteps, Sarah MacLaughlin knows it’s important to support the practitioners who reach mothers in need of post-partum support. HealthySteps ensures universal screening for maternal depression in pediatric primary care, creates more opportunities for prevention and encourages treatment by providing referrals and offering close follow-up and support.

She is also a frequent contributor to Psychology Today, alongside Rahil Briggs, PsyD, with articles to reach new parents of all gender identities on a mass scale. Sarah is a licensed social worker, parent educator, and author of the award-winning, bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and the 2021 release Raising Humans With Heart: Not a How-To Manual.   

Honoring the Legacy of Those Before Us

These visionary women illustrated the power of early connections between babies and their birthing parent. Their work helped lay the foundation for many IECMH and maternal mental health programs and initiatives today.

Kathryn Barnard

Infant mental health pioneer and former ZERO TO THREE Board Member, Dr. Kathryn Barnard, laid the foundation for maternal mental health support in the 1960s.

Her fearless determination helped shape public policy and promote the special and sensitive relationships that exist between parents and their babies.

Jeree Pawl

Dr. Pawl helped shape the field of infant and early childhood mental health and was instrumental in launching ZERO TO THREE more than 40 years ago.

Throughout her numerous projects, she stressed how important it is for children to witness adult emotional regulation in order to learn how to deal with their own big emotions.

Her widely quoted adage, “How you are is as important as what you do,” guides our work every day.

Rebecca Shahmoon Shanok

Dr. Shahmoon-Shanok was a long-time Board Member of ZERO TO THREE and a leader in the field of infant and early childhood mental health.

She was a pioneer in integrating mental health consultation with direct services in childcare and her work illustrates the importance of reflection, sensitivity, and compassion in dealing with the needs of our most challenged families and babies.

You don’t need to be a mental health professional or policymaker to make an impact!

We applaud these moms for their brave vulnerability in exposing an issue that commands attention and action.

I was sitting on the floor with a paramedic. All I had to say was 'I don't want to do this anymore' and he immediately knew what I meant.

@blackloveinc Trigger Warning: S* Felicia La Tour opens up about her postpartum depression experience. Show some love to women currently battling postpartum depression in the comments 🖤 #momswithcoffee ♬ original sound - Black Love

People talk about all the time, but the mental recovery that comes along with having a baby is not talked about enough.

@nikadiwa @Anna Muller you are the friend all mamas needed during postpartum. 🥺😭 #postpartumdepresssion #maternalmentalhealth #onemoretime ♬ original sound - Nika Diwa

I had an episode and was like I can't do this anymore. I tried to commit suicide.

I need help. It's so hard to manage a household and try to care for myself, let alone care for a baby.

We're elevating infant mental health in the early childhood field.

Join us and professionals across the globe at the ZERO TO THREE LEARN Conference to discuss IECMH principles, research and practice. Together, we will turn concepts into action and theories into skills.

Related Resources