The Changing Role of Women Has Created Unique Mental Health Concerns: How FCCF FWG is Addressing the Needs in Fairfield County

May 18, 2018

By Tricia Hyacinth, Director
Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Fund for Women & Girls

Originally published as an Op-Ed for Hearst Connecticut Media.

The role of women in our society has been transformed from predominantly wife and/or mother to include breadwinner.  As a result of this evolution, economic security is critical to a woman’s ability to thrive and insecurity can have a profound, negative impact on women’s health. Supports that enable vulnerable women and their families to sustain themselves and move up the economic ladder are imperative.

As we acknowledge National Mental Health Awareness Month, we must recognize some sobering data. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 56 percent of American adults nationwide with a mental disorder do not receive treatment. Moreover, the cost of mental health conditions exceeds that of all other conditions, including heart conditions, trauma and cancer, making mental health an issue we cannot afford to ignore.

Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Fund for Women & Girls invests in programs that strengthen economic security for low-income women. But, we recognize that if we treat improved health outcomes as solely a byproduct of economic security, we run the risk of putting the cart before the horse because good health, and in particular good mental health, are necessary to achieve economic security.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, we know there are also indisputable links between trauma and mental health. Women are twice as likely as men to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic event.

On average, women with depression are 2.7 times as likely to be victims of domestic violence than women without a mental illness and women with an anxiety disorder are 4.1 times as likely to be domestic violence victims.

These challenges are not unique to adult women; girls also experience significant trauma that impact their mental health and wellbeing. For example, girls between the ages of 12 and 17 are three times more likely to have had a major depressive episode than males of the same age.

Yet despite their prevalence, women’s mental health illnesses often go undiagnosed for a myriad of reasons, including reluctance to disclose a history of intimate partner violence. Additionally, women typically turn to their primary care providers for their health-related concerns; however, these providers are not always equipped to uncover, identify and/or treat mental health disorders. Primary care providers should be trained to explicitly ask patients about potential exposure to interpersonal violence and other sources of trauma, so they may intercede with support or direct patients to supportive services.

When FWG commissioned research in 2013 on the status of women and girls in Fairfield County, we unearthed fragmented mental health services, diminished resources, and long waiting times for community mental health service appointments. That waiting period was up to six weeks for an appointment in Bridgeport. This type of lag often forces individuals to seek emergency room care.

In 2016, we visited Bridgeport Hospital and learned that women were indeed overusing the hospital’s emergency room for crisis psychiatric care.  Some pregnant patients, who believed their medication regimen was harmful to their fetus, ceased taking their medications, which exacerbated their mental instability.

The Fund responded to this need with a two-year investment of $100,000 to support the hiring of an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) for the hospital’s PreNatal Care: Not Just for Babies Program. The APRN screens OB/GYN patients for depression and other emotional disorders as well as provides counseling and medication management. The APRN also works with other clinic providers to develop treatment plans for patients.

At the one-year mark, the APRN had served 300 prenatal patients, many of whom had untreated, psychiatric disorders and had never previously any follow-up regarding care for a variety of reasons including inconvenience, lack of personal contact with their practitioner and/or disjointed services.

We can proudly report that with the Community Foundation’s support to hire a prenatal psychiatric APRN, patients have seen a marked improvement in their overall wellbeing. She has established trust with the soon-to-be and new mothers who now keep appointments, follow-up with medical professionals and manage their own day-to-day care.

The program’s success can also be attributed to a comprehensive approach that includes mind, body and spirit. The program design takes into consideration emotional well-being and family life and infuses self-care in the treatment.

Additionally, this program connects the once fragmented care system that had seen many patients fall through the cracks. The APRN is mobile and meets patients where they are, in places with which they are familiar and comfortable such as the OB/GYN clinic.  Because the APRN meets them where they are, patients do not have to needlessly worry about parking, travel, schedules or other impediments to receiving care.

Often, women are society’s caregivers. They are the cornerstone of strong families and communities.  Therefore, improving women’s mental health and wellbeing is vital to society. Women’s health care needs should be delivered holistically and using a gender responsive lens. As a start, more hospitals could adopt Bridgeport Hospital’s model that has successfully eliminated barriers to care and increased patient’s self-efficacy and mental stability. The model is an investment that improves the lives of women and their children.

As we continue to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Fund for Women & Girls in our community, we are encouraged with the results of this program and hope to continue to invest in sustainable solutions that support the safety, health and economic security of women and girls across Fairfield County.

Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s commitment to advocacy for our region and beyond continues this month, as our Center for Nonprofit Excellence hosts Fairfield County’s Advocacy Day on May 31st at Grace Farms. This half-day seminar promises to be an exciting, interactive and collaborative day open to all nonprofits throughout Connecticut. More information can be found at