Innovative and Intentional Approaches to Maternal and Infant Mental Health: A conversation with Amy R. Sommer, LICSW
Q: Tell me a bit about your career journey thus far. What did you do before JF&CS and how did you find your way here?
A: Just after I finished my master’s degree, I did clinical work in child-parent psychotherapy — one of the first evidence-based treatment programs for children under the age of 5 affected by trauma. I was part of the second cohort to be trained through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to provide dyadic therapy to parents and children. When I moved to Massachusetts, I joined JF&CS, providing child-parent psychotherapy to parents living in residential treatment centers for those impacted by substance use disorder.
Q: What’s dyadic therapy?
A: When working with families, we consider the needs and strengths of the parent, and of the child. Then there are the needs and strengths of their relationship—dyadic therapy focuses on strengthening that relationship. It’s an incredibly rich and rewarding way to work, for all involved. We are not “teaching” parents what to do, and we are relating to babies in a very intentional way. It can also be challenging. I sometimes say that it’s like couples therapy…but with individuals who have totally different developmental needs (which could actually be at odds with each other!). Babies can’t wait. We need to be in tune with and respond quickly to their rapidly changing needs.
Q: What’s exciting about the work JF&CS is doing today?
A: JF&CS recognized early on that the opioid crisis would have deep and lasting impact on young families. Leveraging our deep collective expertise in understanding and meeting the needs of vulnerable families, we created Project NESST® (Newborns Exposed to Substances: Support and Therapy). This program works with parents, caregivers, and infants to address the impact of substance use and trauma on parents’ mental health, the early parent-child relationship, and infant development.
Q: What emerging issues in maternal mental health are you and the team thinking about now?
A: There has been a huge explosion in the science and public awareness of the role of infant maternal health. Recently, the Massachusetts Association of Infant Mental Health (IMH), in partnership with national IMH bodies, began offering infant mental health endorsements to professionals in the field. JF&CS is at the forefront of that work, supporting other practitioners getting their endorsement. That level of interagency engagement has been a hallmark of our work for years… we do a ton of teaching and training to help other service providers realize that there are opportunities to do things differently and better. You can look throughout Greater Boston and see the direct impact of our work in how care and service providers support parents and babies.
Q: What do you love most about your job?
A: I love the “aha moments” — when we help people change the way they relate to others in their lives. And I think every day…. did I impact a client, a colleague, a system? It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to say “yes,” and to know that so many of my interactions have an incredible ripple effect on families and communities.