women's history month

Women Pioneers in Mental Health

Women’s contributions have advanced many fields, often despite sexism forcing them to work behind the scenes. Historically, fiercely determined and compassionate women have made great strides in psychology, counseling and social work. In honor of Women’s History Month all March, who are some of the most pioneering women in mental health?

Dr. Marsha Linehan

Psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan developed dialectical behavior therapy, which has helped many people overcome conditions such as borderline personality disorder, PTSD, eating disorders and substance abuse. Linehan continues to practice and teach psychology, and has trained other mental health professionals worldwide. She has also founded various behavioral health organizations and a certification board for DBT practitioners.

Dr. Martha Bernal

Dr. Martha Bernal, the first Latina to receive a Ph.D. in psychology in the United States, contributed substantially to the advancement of ethnic minority psychology. Through her work, Bernal advanced a viewpoint that recognizes diversity’s importance in training, recruitment and research. She focused much of her time and energy to pursuing leadership activities within the profession of psychology. Bernal also founded the National Hispanic Psychological Association, which is known today as the National Latinx Psychological Association.

Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins would have been the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, but university officials denied her the degree exclusively due to her sex. Despite facing sexism-related adversity, she taught psychology at Wellesley College, a women’s-only university, where she started the first woman-founded psychology lab in 1891 and served on the faculty for four decades.

Calkins became the first woman to serve as president of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. She remained a lifelong supporter of women’s suffrage and gender equality.

Dr. Reiko True

Dr. Reiko True completed her undergraduate degree in Tokyo, Japan, where she graduated as one of only three women in a class of 80. She earned her Ph.D. from the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley. True was instrumental in creating the Asian-American Community Mental Health Program in Oakland, California. At her practice in San Francisco, she provides services to the city’s large Japanese population, many of whom are not fluent in English.

After Japan’s Kobe region experienced an earthquake in 1995, True traveled to her native country as a Fulbright senior scholar and established a program to provide mental health services to disaster victims. From 1997 to 1999, True served as president of the Asian-American Psychological Association. During her tenure, she designed mentoring initiatives to aid Asian-American women.

Virginia Satir

Nicknamed the “Mother of Family Therapy,” Virginia Satir was an influential author and social worker who co-founded the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. In 1962, she received a grant enabling her to create the nation’s first formal family therapy program, which she directed.

Satir’s Transformational Systematic Therapy emphasizes improving relationships within the family dynamic. Therapists trained in this approach can often help their clients work through unresolved trauma, make better decisions and improve their self-esteem.

Dr. Mary Ainsworth

Dr. Mary Ainsworth was a developmental psychologist best known for her work on the attachment theory. After earning her Ph.D. in 1939, she spent a few years teaching at the University of Toronto before joining the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942. During her career, she also taught at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia.

In the 1960s, Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation assessment to observe early emotional attachment. In conducting this evaluation, a researcher observes a young child’s reactions when their mother briefly leaves them alone in an unfamiliar room. Ainsworth identified three major attachment styles children develop with their parents or caregivers: secure, anxious-ambivalent and anxious-avoidant.  

Ainsworth’s studies formed the foundation of modern attachment theory and predicted how child attachment styles would apply to adult relationships.

Dr. Francine Shapiro

Dr. Francine Shapiro developed eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which has proved to be an effective treatment for trauma, anxiety, depression, panic disorders and other mental health challenges. Many national and international organizations recommend EMDR, including the American Psychological Association, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the World Health Organization. Shapiro has received many awards and accolades for her work, including the International Sigmund Freud Award for distinguished contribution to psychotherapy.

Unlike with other therapeutic approaches, therapists who specialize in EMDR do not ask their clients to talk through their problems or face their fears. Instead, EMDR relies on the brain’s natural healing ability. While the client focuses on the upsetting event, the therapist will start sets of lateral eye movements, noises and taps. After each set, the EMDR therapist guides the client to notice any insights or ideas that might have changed.

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University. Her master’s degree thesis, The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children, helped lay the groundwork for overturning racial segregation in American public schools. Clark’s research determined that children unconsciously developed biases about skin color and internalized racism at a very young age and became the foundation for her doll test, which played a pivotal role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1951.

Clark’s life work revolved around the Northside Center for Child Development, a Harlem organization she co-founded with her husband in 1946 and continued to oversee for the rest of her career. Today, Northside remains a leader in mental and behavioral health and education services for low-income children of color and their families.

Focus on Your Mental Health

If the stories of these eight inspirational women have motivated you to seek professional treatment for issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, there’s no better time than the present. At Serene Behavioral Health, we can tailor a treatment plan to address your specific needs and equip you for healing and growth. Whether you need a residential program, monitored outpatient or anything in between, trust our experienced clinicians to help you discover freedom. Contact us today to learn more.

Share this post