Mental health innovator will speak at 2023 Winter Commencement

An expert on postpartum depression, Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody directs the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders.

Image of Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody on a dark blue graphic background. Next to the image is text that reads

A trailblazer in the mental health field, Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody aims to inspire a new generation of leaders when she addresses Carolina graduates at the 2023 Winter Commencement.

Meltzer-Brody is the chair of the UNC School of Medicine’s psychiatry department and the Assad Meymandi Distinguished Professor. She also directs the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders. Meltzer-Brody is known globally for her research on perinatal and postpartum depression and served as principal investigator for the first FDA-approved drugs for the condition.

The Winter Commencement ceremony will begin at 2 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Dean E. Smith Center. Graduates and guests do not need a ticket to attend.

UNC.edu caught up with Meltzer-Brody to learn more about her.

What steered you toward this field of psychiatry and mental health?

My family had always been interested in working in community-focused areas. My mom trained as a social worker and was very focused on doing things that would help support mental health. My interest as a teen was to become a child psychologist. I was very interested in people’s lives and their narratives, and the factors that may lead to some people doing well and thriving and other people struggling significantly.

When did you home in on women’s mental health?

I went to a women’s college, Simmons College. In my freshman year, I learned that many drugs on the market – approved drugs – had not been tested in women of reproductive age because of concerns of exposure to pregnant women. Although the motivation was good, I was astonished that women were excluded from studies, leading to drugs approved without adequate data about how they would impact women. This was one of my primary motivations to go to medical school.

How has that interest shaped your work at Carolina?

When I began as a faculty member, I was doing consultation liaison psychiatry – consults on medical, surgical and OB-GYN floors in the hospital. It seemed like a great opportunity to take my interest in women’s health and develop a specialty program. With the support of colleagues in Psychiatry and OB-GYN, we were able to start the first UNC perinatal psychiatry clinic in 2004.

When the new department chair came, David Rubinow in 2006, he started the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders. The perinatal psychiatry program was part of that. We were able to collaborate on many things, including opening the first perinatal psychiatry inpatient unit in the United States in 2011. That unit was critical in our being able to do the initial clinical trials for brexanolone, the first FDA-approved medication for postpartum depression.

How have you seen the climate evolve around mental health at Carolina and beyond?

Thankfully, there’s been a sea change in a positive direction. I became department chair in October 2019. At that point, it was clear there was a growing mental health crisis, particularly in children and adolescents. And then the pandemic put the crisis on steroids and made it overwhelmingly bad.

What we witnessed was a marked worsening in the mental health of our youth and of college-aged people. What we saw at UNC was an example of what was happening everywhere. I’ve been really impressed by the commitment from the chancellor, the dean of the School of Medicine and so many others towards making mental health a priority.

There’s been a huge investment in working to address things on campus, and these things are very, very complicated. There’s no fairy dust to fix things, but there’s a lot of people working incredibly hard to try and make things better. It will be a very long road, but I think we’re now on the right path to collectively work together to have a positive impact.