Forging a Path in Maternal Mental Health

Helen Conway (C’15) is spending the summer as an intern at Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care in Washington, DC. Photo by Melissa Nyman.

August 11, 2014—As a sophomore, psychology major Helen Conway (C’15) added a minor in women’s and gender studies, though she didn’t have a clear idea of what career path was right for her. But when a roommate noticed her reading a birth story online, she suggested that Conway make a career out of her interest in maternal health.

And Conway, who is spending the summer as an intern at Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care in Washington, DC, has done just that.

After returning from a study abroad stint this past spring, Conway knew she wanted hands-on experience in the realm of maternal and perinatal mental health, but she had no real leads and no idea where to start. So she took matters into her own hands and researched local therapists who specialized in her field of interest.

Soon, one of the therapists she found connected her with Postpartum Support International (PSI), a nonprofit that promotes global awareness, prevention, and treatment of mental health issues related to childbearing. The organization has members all over the world and across the United States. Conway’s conversation with PSI opened the door to her position with Mary’s Center.

Since mid-May, Conway has spent nearly every day interning at the center, doing everything from research and program development to providing administrative support to various staff members. She has written two grant proposals and is helping the center establish a new support group that will debut in the fall.

Conway has also gained valuable insight into the practical aspects of providing care, including patient insurance and billing.

“My boss has been great about exposing me to that side of things. I also observe a support group that she manages, and I’ve learned a lot from watching how she runs the group and listening to the women’s experiences,” Conway said.

Conway also shadowed a reproductive psychiatrist, and before the internship ends, she may also have the chance to go off-site and shadow a clinician who conducts in-home visits.

All of this experience feeds directly into Conway’s interest in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, which she plans to further purse by earning a master’s degree in social work.

“There are so many expectations surrounding new motherhood, including that it should be the happiest time in a woman's life. Unfortunately, this is very far from the truth for many women. But this is a really great time to come into the field, because people are starting to mobilize. There’s been a lot of press about maternal mental health—people are starting to take action and question these expectations,” Conway explained.

Taking action has been a key part of Conway’s Georgetown experience.

“The way social justice is discussed at Georgetown has really informed my interest in social work. Coming to Georgetown and being surrounded by people who are also passionate about social justice has inspired me to continue, despite the challenges [of social work],” she said.

Conway has learned something else at Georgetown, however, that has nothing to do with classroom or clinical experience—how to prioritize.

“It’s important to remember the bigger picture,” she explained. “Finding a path that works for you is part of being in college, but having the time to do it is also part of it—and that doesn’t come along very often in life.”

Conway will be taking that to heart before she goes to graduate school. After she graduates from Georgetown next spring, she plans to travel the world and pursue international volunteer work.

Once she finishes a graduate degree in social work, she plans to focus her career on community mental health. Conway acknowledges that this line of work will be an all-encompassing career path, but her passion, and the experience she’s gained at Mary’s Center, make her all the more confident in her abilities.

“By showing up [to work],” she says, “I’m affecting someone’s life. When I filled in for one of the family support workers this summer, I was just doing little things, but I found it so powerful that I was able to help. These are people who so often get ignored. You show up and it matters.”

—Melissa Nyman