Honoring the Unseen: Women’s Contributions to the Field of Mental Health

Thursday, March 28, 2024 11:05 AM | Liliana Ramos (Administrator)

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By Kusum Punjabi, LMFT, Director of DEI

The traditional chorus of male voices in the field of psychology has often drowned out the remarkable contributions that have been made by women to this field all along. 

March being Women’s History Month is a good time as any to pay tribute to the many women, seen and unseen, who stand behind us in the work that we do. 

Let’s first take a moment to remember the many unnamed women in ancient societies who attended to the mental health and wellbeing of their communities and loved ones. 

The medicine women of ancient Egypt who appeased their gods so that mental health would be given back to those who had incurred their wrath. 

Women caregivers in ancient China who domestically administered acupressure and herbs to balance the chi of their ailing ones, the women in the households of ancient India who prepared meals incorporating Ayurvedic principles, so that the three doshas of their family members would remain in balance, creating inner harmony and calm. 

In ancient Greece, the oracle at Delphi comforted farmers and rulers alike with her guidance from beyond. In Native American societies, women were keepers of traditional herbal knowledge and rituals attending to the care of the ailing soul. 

In Africa, women invoked ancestral spirits to heal troubled individuals and the community as a whole, in Ubuntu. The female storytellers and art-makers of aboriginal Australia healed mental disturbance in their communities through making their art. 

Standing on the shoulders of these ancients, are the pioneering psychologists, theorists and social activists of modern societies, including those whose contributions have been overshadowed or attributed to their male counterparts. Let’s take a moment to honor some of them here. This list is far from exhaustive, but it’s better than silence. 

In the psychoanalytical tradition, Karen Horney challenged Freud’s perspectives on women, while Anna Freud extended them to working with children. Melanie Klein’s groundbreaking object relations theory put the mother back at the center of the child’s world. Years later, Jessica Benjamin made psychoanalysis relational. 

In the Jungian tradition, Marie-Louise von Franz’s work on fairytales, dream and alchemy and Emma Jung’s work on the grail legend were shaping contributions to the field. Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ work at the intersection of Jungian psychology, mythology and storytelling set a path for women on how to reclaim their instinctual selves.

In cognitive psychology, Elizabeth Loftus studied the malleability of human memory and her findings have significantly impacted the understanding of eyewitness testimony. Carol Dweck introduced the concepts of fixed and growth mindsets, and Barbara Fredrickson developed the broaden and build theory emphasizing that positive emotions expand cognition and behavior, leading to increased well-being and health. 

In the humanistic tradition, Charlotte Bühler’s work emphasized the importance of personal meaning and goals in motivating our behavior, while Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on the stages of grief introduced an empathic and support-focused approach to the process of dying. 

Virginia Satir’s humanistic approach to counseling emphasized communication, emotional honesty and the importance of creating a growth fostering environment within the family. 

Laura Perls was an equal partner in the creation of Gestalt Therapy, although the figure in the limelight was often her charismatic, intense and confrontational husband Fritz. 

In developmental psychology, Marie Ainsworth’s ‘strange situation’ experiments brought attachment theory into the practical realm. In clinical psychology, Marsha Linehan developed DBT that has helped thousands. In somatic psychology, Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy expanded how trauma was administered to. 

In Couples Therapy, Sue Johnson, Ellyn Bader, Helen Hunt, Esther Perel and Julie Gottman have each created or contributed to an important approach to their field. 

Mamie Phipps Clark’s research on race and self esteem played a crucial role in the desegregation of US schools. Martha E. Bernal, the first Latinx woman to receive a psychology PhD in the US made significant contributions to minority mental health.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, scholar of critical race theory,  coined the term "intersectionality," providing a critical framework for understanding how overlapping identities impact access to mental health services and the experience of mental health issues.

Dr. Dana Beyer, a trans woman, has been a spokesperson for transgender mental health, particularly with regards to having access to gender affirming care. Beverly Greene focuses on the intersections of race, gender and sexual orientation in psychotherapy.

Many of the women named so far have operated in a Western context, and many others have worked and continue to do so at its border or outside it. Their contributions have helped understand mental health from a more diverse cultural lens. 

In the US, Gwendolyn Puryear Keita has advocated for the inclusion of psychological research on women and ethnic minorities, influencing policy and practice in mental health. In Mexico, Rebeca Eriksen has integrated indigenous healing practices into contemporary psychotherapeutic techniques, and in Japan, Chikako Ozawa-de Silva explores the intersection of cultural anthropology and mental health, particularly the integration of Buddhist practices in addressing mental health issues. And on and on…

This list is far from complete. It is a partial glimpse of a giant patchwork quilt, stitched together from various fabrics, that extends back in time and sideways to cover the whole of the earth. 

It bears witness to the collective impact women have had and continue to have on the field of mental health, a view that our internalized patriarchal biases can keep us from seeing. 

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  • Friday, March 29, 2024 11:52 AM | Moitreyee Chowdhury
    Thank you so much for bringing these stories to light.
    Link  •  Reply
  • Friday, March 29, 2024 3:22 PM | Alex
    What a treasure trove of women’s contributions to psychology all in one place. Impactful to see collected in one place!
    Link  •  Reply

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