Mental health pioneer honored for helping parents

Nicholson receives Katharine F. Erskine Award in Medicine and Science

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

April 26, 2011
 Nicholson article
Joanne Nicholson, PhD 
photo credit: Tammy Woodard

Joanne Nicholson, PhD, professor of psychiatry and family medicine & community health, and director of the Child and Family Research Core of the UMMS Center for Mental Health Services Research (CMHSR), will be honored with the 2011 Katharine F. Erskine Award for Women in Medicine and Science for her groundbreaking work to help adults with mental illness be successful as parents. Dr. Nicholson will accept the award from the YWCA of Central Massachusetts at its annual Tribute to Women luncheon on May 3.

Nicholson has dedicated her career to understanding and proactively addressing issues faced by parents living with mental illness. “There has been much focus on how parents’ mental illnesses affect their children. The work that we do is the flip side of that, which is the impact of parenting experiences and family life on the well-being and functioning of adults with serious mental illnesses,” she explained. “If you can help one adult function better, you may be helping several children and other family members.” 

Nominator and longtime colleague Jeffrey Geller, MD, wrote, “Until Dr. Nicholson’s work, the parenting role and family care giving responsibilities of women with serious mental illness were totally neglected. Through this work, she has been able to translate her ground-breaking discoveries into community-based intervention programs for families living with parental mental illness that help to combat the idea that women with mental illnesses cannot be good mothers.” Dr. Geller, professor of psychiatry, co-director of the Policy Research Core at the CMHSR and director of Public Sector Psychiatry at UMass Medical School, further lauded Nicholson as a role model and mentor, noting that she has championed training and career development for women faculty and the creation of specialty mental health services for women. 

Established by the YWCA in 1993, the Erskine Awards are named in honor of Worcester native Katherine F. Erskine, the organization’s former president and a lifelong advocate for women’s rights. Given to women in five professional areas—arts and humanities, business and law, community/social service and government, education, and medicine and science—the annual awards celebrate the achievements of women who have improved life in their community, especially for women and girls. 

Joining Nicholson at the Tribute to Women luncheon will be research colleagues Jodi Adams, MA, project director; Karen Albert, MS, project director; Kathleen Biebel, PhD, research assistant professor of psychiatry; Gifty Debordes-Jackson, MA, research coordinator; Bernice Gershenson, MPH, biostatistician; Gina Vincent, PhD, research assistant professor of psychiatry; and Valerie Williams, MA, MS, research instructor in psychiatry, along with key contributors Alexis Henry, ScD, associate professor of psychiatry; and Linda Weinreb, MD, professor of family medicine & community health and pediatrics. Other collaborators include Jonathan Clayfield, MA, project director, and Susan Phillips Doiron, BS, research coordinator. All will pay tribute to the contributions of the late Steven Banks, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry. 

“I hardly ever use the word thrilled, but I was thrilled,” Nicholson said of learning she was being honored by the YWCA. “The Erskine Award is a sign that our work is making a difference and that we are bringing attention to the issues of women and families living with mental illness.” 

Related links: 

Nicholson leads international effort to help parents with mental illness
Center for Mental Health Services Research 
CMHSR Areas of Research: Parents and Families