Two Meredith College faculty members have received a $350,000 multi-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to fund research examining the benefit of support systems on maternal mental health. Assistant Professor of Psychology Betty-Shannon Prevatt, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of Child Development Pamela Norcross, Ph.D., are the co-primary investigators (PIs) on this project.
The NIMH is one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Prevatt and Norcross are the first-ever Meredith College research team to be selected for an NIMH or NIH grant. Meredith’s project is one of 20 to be funded and other recipients included projects at larger research universities such as Clemson University, Ohio State, and Syracuse.
Through their project, Advancing Insight into Maternal Social Support (AIMSS), Norcross and Prevatt will explore how social support interventions during pregnancy affect occurrence of postpartum mood disorders (PPMD).
As stated in their research application, postpartum mood disorders affect 8-13% of new mothers, with another 16-23% experiencing elevated symptomology throughout the infant’s first year of life. A variety of interventions for PPMD exist, including pharmacological and psychosocial treatments such as social support. However, existing research on advantages of social support programs has been limited to the postpartum period. Benefits of social support programs during pregnancy have not been established and little is known about the conditions under which these programs may affect PPMD.
Meredith researchers will partner with a multisite obstetrics and gynecology practice that offers CenteringPregnancy, a group-based prenatal care model with demonstrated positive maternal and infant health outcomes when compared to prenatal care-as-usual. Through this partnership, the project will examine the mental health benefits of the CenteringPregnancy model.
As faculty members in psychology and child development, Norcross and Prevatt bring the perspectives of their disciplines to the project.
“Betty-Shannon and I connected early on at Meredith. She reached out to me and we realized we had this shared interest in maternal mental health,” said Norcross. “My research focus is primarily on how maternal mental health affects early parenting, so when she suggested adding this piece to the study on maternal social support, I got really excited to be a part of this project. We have an opportunity to contribute to a better understanding of maternal mental health, which will hopefully drive prevention and intervention services for new mothers.”
Their research will fill an important gap in what is currently understood about maternal health and wellbeing.
“This project is really exciting because it is going to explore an already existing intervention and think about it from a mental health perspective,” said Prevatt. “So often we look at health care as being about physical health and not thinking about people from a holistic perspective. This is particularly true of parents. We have this heightened awareness about their physical health, but we don’t think about them from that mental health perspective.”
Research Opportunities for Undergraduate Students
The research project will begin with using a pre-existing dataset to examine the CenteringPregnancy model versus typical care, and how these options affect maternal depression outcomes. The data collection for this initial phase of the study was funded by a feasibility grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Foundation.
The project will also involve gathering new data during pregnancy and during early parenting, a process that is scheduled to begin this fall. There will be an initial data collection during pregnancy and then a follow up after delivery. This model will be followed for the next two and a half years.
Meredith College undergraduate students will be able to work on both aspects of the research under the supervision of Norcross and Prevatt.
Students will also have opportunities to identify some areas of their own interest and to develop their own research questions.
Building a foundation for more research at Meredith
The NIMH grant will fund opportunities to strengthen the research environment at Meredith. The College has a strong student-focused Undergraduate Research Program, and the NIMH grant should serve as a model for providing additional collaborative opportunities that support faculty research interests.
“We hope to lead the way for others at Meredith College who may be interested in having a similar kind of research opportunity. Meredith is a predominantly teaching college, but I don’t think we have to think in terms of research or teaching,” Norcross said. “I think there’s a lot of meaning that we can bring into our teaching from this opportunity. I hope when people look at this grant and the project that we have created, they can see that it is adding value to what we already have at Meredith.”
About the NIMH Grant
The project at Meredith College was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one of the National Institutes of Health through an Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) for Undergraduate Focused Institutions under Award Number R15MH126403.
The purpose of AREA funding is to support small scale research grants at institutions that do not receive substantial funding from the National Institutes of Health, with an emphasis on providing biomedical research experiences primarily for undergraduate students, and enhancing the research environment at these applicant institutions.