Women’s History Month: Celebrating Women in Mental Health

As is common in history classrooms, sometimes we don’t always learn a complete representation of all the pioneers who contributed to a particular subject or science. This trend holds true in mental health where names like Freud, Pavlov, Bandura, and Maslow lead the way in many of our psychology and education classes. While these men were brilliant thinkers in their own right, our understanding of mental health care is only enhanced by learning about some of the brilliant women who also contributed in a time and culture that may not have been as welcoming to their leadership, ideas, or work.

Below are brief descriptions of just a few women who made incredible contributions to the field of mental health as well as links and resources to follow if you would like to learn more about them and many others not mentioned here.

Women Pioneers in Mental Health

Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence: After losing her brother to a congenital condition, Dr. Lawrence was the only African-American student in her class and among only ten women at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. After beginning her career as a pediatrician, she later returned to school and became a psychiatrist. For 21 years, she served as the Chief of Psychiatry for Infants and Children at Harlem Hospital, accomplishing countless firsts not only for women but for African-Americans in psychiatry.

Dorotha Dix: This exceptional activist transformed the profession of nursing through her work during the Civil War and later toured hospitals across the country, reporting troubling findings about the treatment of mentally unwell people. She later established asylums in several states and advocated for improved care for the mentally ill throughout the remainder of her life.

Anna Freud: Being the daughter of Sigmund Freud must have had an influence, not the least of which was introducing Ms. Freud in a very close way to the emerging field of psychoanalytics. Not only did she become an influential psychologist in her own right, she also was a pioneer in child psychoanalysis and an advocate for the expansion of children’s mental health care.

Nellie Bly: Beginning her career as an investigative journalist, she learned of horrendous conditions endured by patients at a New York State asylum. She then posed as insane, lived within the walls of that facility for ten days, and then wrote an expose that led to mental health reform. Her experience is also detailed in a book, “Ten Days in a Madhouse.”

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: Ms. Kubler-Ross’ book “On Death and Dying” shifted and continues to shape the death and dying literature to this day. Her work gave words to the process and study of death and surrounding grief processes in ways that allowed both researchers and loved ones a place to steady their concepts. The language she gave to the “five stages of grief” is one of the most well-known popular culture concepts that has been applied to anything from loss to addiction.

Elizabeth Packard: In a story that reads like a psychological thriller, Ms. Packard’s experience with mental health care could be described as a nightmare. Several years after being married, she began to express differences of opinion to her husband. At the time, it was legal to commit one’s wife to an asylum which Mr. Packard did, leaving her there for three years. He later imprisoned her in their home, leading eventually to a trial where a jury found her sane. She spent her remaining years fighting for the rights of women and those accused of insanity, changing the laws in four states.

Additional Resources:

6 Female Mental Health Heroes You Should Know This Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month: Pioneers in Mental Health

Women in Mental Healthcare Through History

The History of Women’s Mental Health Awareness

Originally published March 21, 2023. Updated March 11, 2024. By Anne Rulo, Author, Speaker, Therapist. FB/IG/Twitter @annemrulo 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *