Celebrating Women’s Impact on Mental Health

Since the 1800s, women have played a pivotal role in the development of mental health care and breakthroughs in new treatments. While celebrating Women’s History Month this March, we’re highlighting female professionals in the mental health field – whether those are women who made groundbreaking contributions decades ago or women in the workforce today who […]

Ashley Laderer By Ashley Laderer
Strong business women.

Updated on May 21, 2024

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Since the 1800s, women have played a pivotal role in the development of mental health care and breakthroughs in new treatments. While celebrating Women’s History Month this March, we’re highlighting female professionals in the mental health field – whether those are women who made groundbreaking contributions decades ago or women in the workforce today who continue to pave the way.  

It’s time to recognize the irreplaceable role that trailblazing women have played and continue to play in the world of mental well-being — not just during Women’s History Month, but every month. 

The Trailblazers: Influential Women in Mental Health 

Celebrating female trailblazers in the mental health field honors their achievements and inspires young women to follow their dreams and pursue a career in mental health. Here are some of our favorites.

Dorothea Dix: 1800s Trendsetter

In the 1800s, when women weren’t even allowed to vote, Dorothea Dix played a large part in mental health care reform.

Back then, mental health care didn’t look anything like it does today. “Mentally ill” people were hidden away by families or even locked up in jails or prisons. Dix visited these places and saw how inhumanely these people were treated. She knew she had to make a change, and she pushed for “moral treatment” rather than the cruel “treatment” people were getting in these jails. 

She was one of the only people back then to assert that mental illness could be helped and even cured, contrary to the belief of many back then. Ultimately, she ended up playing a role in the development of over 30 psychiatric hospitals

Mary Whiton Calkins: The First President 

In the 1880s, only men were allowed to attend Harvard. Mary Whiton Calkins wouldn’t stand for this and eventually earned herself a chance to attend seminars at the university. Although she met all the Ph.D. requirements and completed a dissertation, she was not given her well-deserved doctoral degree simply because of her gender.

Still, she made strides in the field of memory research and the importance of understanding the conscious self. Later, she founded the first psychology laboratory at Wellesley College, a women’s college, and in 1905, she was appointed the first female president of the American Psychological Association. 

Melanie Klein: Object Relations Theory

Melanie Klein was a pioneer in the field of child psychoanalysis. She was able to psychoanalyze toddlers as young as two years old. Klein used play therapy to work with children, where they could express their thoughts and feelings through toys. She learned about their psyche by observing the way they played. 

She also created object-relations theory to understand the workings of the human psyche. Put most simply, this theory is about how our early relationships with our parents or caregivers shape how we see the world and ourselves. This was a big deal since it differed from the way Sigmund Freud (AKA the “father of psychoanalysis”) viewed this.

Virginia Satir: “The Mother of Family Therapy”

Virginia Satir started her career as a teacher, taking special interest in connecting with students’ families. She became passionate about working with parents alongside the students, realizing this resulted in better performance for students and better relationships within the family. 

From there, she got a degree in social work and quickly began revolutionizing family therapy with her keen understanding of family dynamics. She understood how someone’s family life and issues could impact the individual’s well-being — and of course, this is still an extremely important concept today. She was a pioneer in practicing and writing about family therapy. 

Mary Ainsworth: Attachment Theory

Mary Ainsworth created the “Strange Situation Procedure” in the 1960s to assess the relationship and “attachment” between a baby and their mother. She made major contributions to understanding child development and bonding – proving the critical role of parental bonding.

Ainsworth introduced the idea that the nature of a child’s attachment to their caregiver will lay the groundwork for an individual’s attachment style and relationships in the future, even as adults, known as attachment theory. Attachment theory remains popular in modern therapy, helping people understand why they act like they do in relationships and how to build more secure partnerships. 

Marsha Linehan: Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Psychologist Marsha Linehan changed the treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD) forever when she developed dialectical behavior therapy in the 1980s. She knew that traditional therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), just weren’t effective enough for those with BPD. 

Linehan had unique insight. She wasn’t just seeing this in her practice – she was one of those patients whose psychologists didn’t know how to help. In 2011, she revealed that although she wasn’t diagnosed when she was younger, she believes she had BPD. She told the New York Times, “I developed a therapy that provides the things I needed for so many years and never got.”

DBT is a skills-based therapy approach unlike any other, teaching mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance to learn to better cope with BPD symptoms like suicidal thoughts and urges to self-harm. Although its main indication is for BPD, DBT is now used for a variety of other mental health concerns. 

Francine Shapiro: EMDR Inventor

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is one of the greatest advancements in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it’s all thanks to Francine Shapiro. EMDR uses bilateral (side-to-side) stimulation to help the brain process traumatic memories. 

Shapiro stumbled upon the future mechanism of action of EMDR when she was walking and noticed her own eye movements, which seemed to reduce her distress. This inspired her to conduct controlled studies testing what became EMDR on trauma survivors, and the results were outstanding. A new trauma therapy was born, and now it has become a mainstream treatment modality for people with PTSD.

Innovations and Contributions

Without these incredible ladies and their undeniable empowerment, we wouldn’t have as many life-changing and life-saving innovative treatments and therapeutic approaches. From Dix’s tireless advocacy for humane treatment in psychiatric hospitals to Calkins’ unwillingness to take no for an answer to Linehan’s groundbreaking DBT, each of these trailblazers has left an undeniable mark on the mental health landscape and on the individuals whose lives have been saved thanks to them. 

Not only has their innovation expanded our understanding of mental health, but they’ve also advocated for a more compassionate and inclusive approach to therapy, providing the best possible care to patients.

Overcoming Barriers: Challenges Faced by Women in Mental Health

Even today, women in the mental health field still face struggles and discrimination. In certain mental health fields, such as psychiatry, there are far more male practitioners dominating the industry. A Johns Hopkins study estimated that only 38.5% of physiatrists in practice are women.

However, there is a higher number of female therapists versus male therapists. Despite the high prevalence, female therapists today still have to work hard to prove themselves when they shouldn’t have to. 

“I’ve had recurring experiences of having my decisions or suggestions as a professional be second-guessed,” says Martinique Moron, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy. “I’ve noticed that happens more with me or maybe the other female co-workers versus the male co-workers.” 

Sadly, this phenomenon of gender inequality still seems to be the norm across many professions – women need to prove themselves worthy of their jobs and qualifications, even when they have the same if not more training and experience as men.

I’ve had recurring experiences of having my decisions or suggestions as a professional be second-guessed. I’ve noticed that happens more with me or maybe the other female co-workers versus the male co-workers.

- Martinique Moron, LCSW

“I have to work harder to demonstrate that I know what I’m doing. I’m a professional, and I have experience and training,” she shares. Being a woman in the mental health field, frequently dealing with microaggressions from men, requires patience, resilience, and determination. 

Not only do women in the industry have to deal with not being taken seriously, they also often make less money than men. In most industries, men make more money than women for performing the same job. The same goes for mental health. One report from the American Psychological Association reports that starting salaries for female psychologists are typically $20,000 less than male psychologists’ starting salaries. On top of this gender inequality in pay, it takes women longer to get tenured at their jobs, and they’re less likely to be awarded top honors or become institutional leaders.  

Mentorships and professional networks play a big role in shifting the power balance. Moron stresses the importance of mentorship to help new female mental health professionals navigate the challenges of the industry more effectively. “Having seasoned female professionals mentor younger or less experienced female professionals helps them feel seen and heard and feel like they can ask questions without being second-guessed, gaslit, or dismissed,” she says.

Therapy and Healing: How Women Have Shaped the Way We Understand Mental Health

Women bring endless unique perspectives into therapy and mental health care. The challenges that women face give them lived experiences that help them better empathize and connect with clients. 

“The road to this time and place in my career has been paved with innumerable challenges,” says Stephanie Willoughby, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy. “While I’d never say I’m glad to have experienced these things, I genuinely believe they have made me a better therapist and enabled me to build very strong therapeutic relationships with my clients.”

Moron notes that many women are brought up to be good listeners and to be empathetic –– both important traits for mental health professionals to have. “A lot of these things just come a little bit more naturally to us, just from how we were raised and socialized,” she says. 

Female providers also generally have a deep understanding and experience with issues with self-worth, self-esteem, defining personal values, and the urge to “people please,” Willoughby says. Not to mention, female therapists who have gone through life transitions or challenges such as pregnancy, postpartum lifestyle changes and postpartum depression, menopause, sexual assault, domestic violence, and emotional abuse can relate to their clients on another level. 

Some mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, affect women more than men. These women must get the mental health services they need. Research has found that, in most cases, women prefer a female therapist, perceiving them as being more empathetic and warm. Interestingly, another survey found that “severely depressed” men preferred a female therapist over a male therapist, too. Women therapists may also be more likely to incorporate holistic and integrative approaches into therapy, such as yoga, nutrition counseling, or art therapy as part of healing (81% of art therapists are women). 

The Role of Women in Research

Women weren’t required to be included in clinical research until 1993. Now, women are included in research and many women researchers are paving the way. There are even hospitals and universities that have departments dedicated to these efforts. The below is not an exhaustive list, but the following women are doing incredible work in the field today:

The Legacy and Future of Women in Mental Health

Looking back, it’s clear that women have made significant advancements in the mental health field, challenging stereotypes and contributing groundbreaking ideas. While we acknowledge the progress made in the journey to gender equality, we can’t ignore the ongoing challenges and barriers that women in mental health still face today.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Ashley Laderer Ashley Laderer

Ashley Laderer is a freelance writer who splits her time between New York and Venice Beach. She has been a mental health advocate since 2016, when she first publicly wrote about her own battle with anxiety and depression. After hearing how others were impacted by her story, she decided to continue writing about anything and everything mental health. Since then, she’s been published in Teen Vogue, SELF, Refinery29, NYLON, VICE, Healthline, Insider, and more.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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