If you pay attention to maternal mental health advocacy and awareness in Massachusetts, pretty soon you’ll start hearing this name time and again: Jamie Zahlaway Belsito. A mom of two girls, a professional flamenco dancer, and a former DC lobbyist, Jamie is a Commissioner with the Special Commission on Postpartum Depression for the Commonwealth and the National Advocacy Chair at the National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health.
A bubbly, expressive person with a contagious jubilant laugh, Jamie was dumbfounded when she started feeling serious depression and anxiety symptoms during both of her pregnancies and postpartum. Shocked by the lack of services for women (she had to wait 8-9 weeks before she could speak to a clinician, who wasn’t even a specialist in maternal mood disorders) as well as by the society’s unwillingness to discuss maternal mental health issues, Jamie turned her energy, charisma, and lobbying skills to change the situation for women in her state and nationally.
“I had to find support on my own,” she says. “There was no system to support me. I had to find it myself, through word of mouth. That’s where my advocacy came in. After I came out of a really dark place, I looked around and I said This has to change! We are living in the 21st century, but women’s health care is still in the dark ages. And yet we are supposed to have a career and go back to work, while being scattered around geographically and disconnected from our families and support systems.”
Jamie went to Senator Joan Lovely and said to her: “I gave birth in your district, I experienced terrible depression, and there was no help for me. What can you do to help?” Together with Senators Lovely and Bruce Tarr, Representative Ellen Story, the Polito-Baker administration, and Congresswoman Katherine Clark, Jamie started working on bringing mandatory depression screening to Massachusetts, as well as lobbying in DC and nationally to ensure passage of HR. 3235 and S. 2311 "Bringing Postpartum Out of the Shadows Act of 2015". The Senate postpartum bill is now part of the Senate’s larger mental health bill, and the House stand alone bill currently has 65 co-sponsors. “We thought the bill would have 10-15 co-sponsors, tops. This is a big, bi-partisan bill”.
She tells a story of helping to arrange a meeting between a Virginia Congresswoman and a family who went through a tragedy of losing their daughter - a mother of three children, a police officer and a daughter of a Marine - who shot herself after being unable to disclose to her loved ones that she was suffering from depression. The congresswoman’s staff, all males in their early 20's, kept saying “We are sorry for your loss, but congresswoman is very busy, we’ll see what we can do”. With Jamie’s coaching, the family was finally able to have the meeting. “The congresswoman stopped what she was doing, sat down with them, had tears with the family. She is now helping put the bill on the floor. She’s a mom and she understood”.
From in her kitchen in Topsfield, Jamie is changing the world. “I want to live in a world where maternal depression is part of the normal conversation, where people routinely check on the mother just like they check blood pressure and temperature. They keep measuring the baby’s heartbeat or asking you how many poops the baby had, they need to be asking the mom about her feelings too. I faced depression alone – I had to help myself. I don’t want other women to have to go through this alone.
Join Jamie and other members of the Special Legislative Commission on Postpartum Depression for the Commonwealth at the 2nd Postpartum Advocacy event "Bring Postpartum Depression Into the Light” on June 14th, 12.30 pm in the Great Hall at Massachusetts State House. You won’t be disappointed.