Give women's mental health a seat at the health care table

Why it’s time for women’s mental health to be recognized as the subspecialty it already is


It wasn’t until I (Dr. Leistikow) finished my psychiatry residency that I realized the training I had received in women’s mental health was unusual. It was simply a required experience for PGY-3 residents at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

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All of us, regardless of interest, spent 1 afternoon a week over 6 months caring for patients in a specialty psychiatric clinic for women (run by Dr. Payne and Dr. Osborne). We discussed cases and received didactics on such topics as risk factors for postpartum depression; the risks of untreated mental illness in pregnancy, compared with the risks of various psychiatric medications; how to choose and dose medications for bipolar disorder as blood levels change across pregnancy; which resources to consult to determine the amounts and risks of various medications passed on in breast milk; and how to diagnose and treat premenstrual dysphoric disorder, to name a few lecture subjects.

By the time we were done, all residents had received more than 20 hours of teaching about how to treat mental illness in women across the reproductive life cycle. This was 20 hours more than is currently required by the American College of Graduate Medical Education, the accrediting body for all residencies, including psychiatry.1 It is time for that to change.

Women’s need for psychiatric treatment that addresses reproductive transitions is not new; it is as old as time. Not only do women who previously needed psychiatric treatment continue to need treatment when they get pregnant or are breastfeeding, but it is now well recognized that times of reproductive transition or flux – whether premenstrual, post partum, or perimenopausal – confer increased risk for both new-onset and exacerbations of prior mental illnesses.

Dr. Nicole Leistikow

Dr. Nicole Leistikow

What has changed is psychiatry’s ability to finally meet that need. Previously, despite the fact that women make up the majority of patients presenting for treatment, that nearly all women will menstruate and go through menopause, and that more than 80% of American women will have at least one pregnancy during their lifetime,psychiatrists practice as if these reproductive transitions were unfortunate blips getting in the doctor’s way.2 We mostly threw up our hands when our patients became pregnant, reflexively stopped all medications, and expected women to suffer for the sake of their babies.

Over the last 20-30 years, however, a grassroots movement has established what is now an international reproductive psychiatry community with a large and growing research base, with both agreed-upon best practices and evolving standards of care informed by and responsive to the scientific literature. We now know that untreated maternal psychiatric illness carries its own risks for infants both before and after delivery; that many maternal pharmacologic treatments are lower risk for infants than previously thought; that protecting and treating women’s mental health in pregnancy has benefits for women, their babies, and the families that depend on them; and that there is now a growing evidence base informing both new and older treatments and enabling women and their doctors to make complex decisions balancing risk and benefit across the life cycle.

Many psychiatrists-in-training are hungry for this knowledge. At last count, in the United States alone, there were 16 women’s mental health fellowships available, up from just 3 in 2008.3 The problem is that none of them are accredited or funded by the ACGME, because reproductive psychiatry (here used interchangeably with the term women’s mental health) has not been officially recognized as a subspecialty. This means that current funding frequently rests on philanthropy, which often cannot be sustained, and clinical billing, which gives fellows in some programs such heavy clinical responsibilities that little time is left for scholarly work. Lack of subspecialty status also blocks numerous important downstream effects that would flow from this recognition.

Dr. Jennifer L. Payne

Dr. Jennifer L. Payne

Reproductive psychiatry clearly already meets criteria laid out by the American Board of Medical Specialties for defining a subspecialty field. As argued elsewhere, it has a distinct patient population with definable care needs and a standalone body of scientific medical knowledge as well as a national (and international) community of experts that has already done much to improve women’s access to care they desperately need.4 It also meets the ACGME’s criteria for a new subspecialty except for approval by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.5 Finally, it also meets the requirements of the ABPN except for having 25 fellowship programs with 50 fellowship positions and 50 trainees per year completing fellowships, a challenging Catch-22 without the necessary funding that would accrue from accreditation.6

Despite growing awareness and demand, there remains a shortage of psychiatrists trained to treat women during times of reproductive transition and to pass their recommendations and knowledge on to their primary care and ob.gyn. colleagues. What official recognition would bring, in addition to funding for fellowships post residency, is a guaranteed seat at the table in psychiatry residencies, in terms of a required number of hours devoted to these topics for trainees, ensuring that all graduating psychiatrists have at least some exposure to the knowledge and practices so material to their patients.

It isn’t enough to wait for residencies to see the writing on the wall and voluntarily carve out a slice of pie devoted to women’s mental health from the limited time and resources available to train residents. A 2017 survey of psychiatry residency program training directors found that 23%, or almost a quarter of programs that responded, offered no reproductive psychiatry training at all, that 49% required 5 hours or less across all 4 years of training, and that 75% of programs had no required clinical exposure to reproductive psychiatry patients.7 Despite the fact that 87% of training directors surveyed agreed either that reproductive psychiatry was “an important area of education” or a subject general residents should be competent in, ACGME-recognized specialties take precedence.

Dr. Lauren M. Osborne

Dr. Lauren M. Osborne

A system so patchy and insufficient won’t do. It’s not good enough for the trainees who frequently have to look outside of their own institutions for the training they know they need. It’s not good enough for the pregnant or postpartum patient looking for evidence-based advice, who is currently left on her own to determine, prior to booking an appointment, whether a specific psychiatrist has received any training relevant to treating her. Adding reproductive psychiatry to the topics a graduating psychiatrist must have some proficiency in also signals to recent graduates and experienced attendings, as well as the relevant examining boards and producers of continuing medical education content, that women’s mental health is no longer a fringe topic but rather foundational to all practicing psychiatrists.

The oil needed to prime this pump is official recognition of the subspecialty that reproductive psychiatry already is. The women’s mental health community is ready. The research base is well established and growing exponentially. The number of women’s mental health fellowships is healthy and would increase significantly with ACGME funding. Psychiatry residency training programs can turn to recent graduates of these fellowships as well as their own faculty with reproductive psychiatry experience to teach trainees. In addition, the National Curriculum in Reproductive Psychiatry, over the last 4 years, has created a repository of free online modules dedicated to facilitating this type of training, with case discussions across numerous topics for use by both educators and trainees. The American Psychiatric Association recently formed the Committee on Women’s Mental Health in 2020 and will be publishing a textbook based on work done by the NCRP within the coming year.

Imagine the changed world that would open to all psychiatrists if reproductive psychiatry were given the credentials it deserves. When writing prescriptions, we would view pregnancy as the potential outcome it is in any woman of reproductive age, given that 50% of pregnancies are unplanned, and let women know ahead of time how to think about possible fetal effects rather than waiting for their panicked phone messages or hearing that they have stopped their medications abruptly. We would work to identify our patient’s individual risk factors for postpartum depression predelivery to reduce that risk and prevent or limit illness. We would plan ahead for close follow-up post partum during the window of greatest risk, rather than expecting women to drop out of care while taking care of their infants or languish on scheduling waiting lists. We would feel confident in giving evidence-based advice to our patients around times of reproductive transition across the life cycle, but especially in pregnancy and lactation, empowering women to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families, no longer abandoning them just when they need us most.


1. ACGME Program Requirements for Graduate Medical Education in Psychiatry. Accreditation Counsel for Graduate Medical Education. 2020 Jul 1.

2. Livingston G. “They’re waiting longer, but U.S. women today more likely to have children than a decade ago.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. 2018 Jan 18.

3. Nagle-Yang S et al. Acad Psychiatry. 2018 Apr;42(2):202-6.

4. Payne JL. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2019 May;31(3):207-9.

5. Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education Policies and Procedures. 2020 Sep 26.

6. American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Requirements for Subspecialty Recognition, Attachment A. 2008.

7. Osborne LM et al. Acad Psychiatry. 2018 Apr;42(2):197-201.

Dr. Leistikow is a reproductive psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where she sees patients and helps train residents and fellows. She is on the education committee of the National Curriculum in Reproductive Psychiatry ( and has written about women’s mental health for textbooks, scientific journals and on her private practice blog at Dr. Leistikow has no conflicts of interest.

Dr. Payne is associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Women’s Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. In addition to providing outstanding clinical care for women with mood disorders, she conducts research into the genetic, biological, and environmental factors involved in postpartum depression. She and her colleagues have recently identified two epigenetic biomarkers of postpartum depression and are working hard to replicate this work with National Institutes of Health funding. Most recently, she was appointed to the American Psychiatric Association’s committee on women’s mental health and is serving as president-elect for both the Marcé of North America and the International Marcé Perinatal Mental Health Societies. She disclosed the following relevant financial relationships: serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, adviser, consultant, or trustee for Sage Therapeutics and Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Osborne is associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University, where she directs a postdoctoral fellowship program in reproductive psychiatry. She is an expert on the diagnosis and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders during pregnancy, the post partum, the premenstrual period, and perimenopause. Her work is supported by the Brain and Behavior Foundation, the Doris Duke Foundation, the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and the National Institute of Mental Health. She has no conflicts of interest.

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