08/05/2014 10:43 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2014

A Program That Treats Moms Like the Precious Resource They Are

Gabrielle had lost her job in human resources and did not know how she was going to feed her two children. "I really needed some support," she says. She wasn't just talking about material support. Job loss comes with a whole host of emotional challenges -- like stress, depression and doubts about our own worth.

She found practical and emotional support through the MOMS Partnership, a project that is working to make the New Haven, Connecticut, community more responsive to mothers' needs. That means everything from delivering mental health care where moms live, to developing an app that helps moms form healthy bonds with newborns, to connecting them to basic needs Food Stamps do not meet — like diapers and laundry detergent. (Disclaimer: I'm proud to be on the MOMS Guide Team, which helps to lead the partnership.)

One of the strongest predictors of a child's health and success is a mother's mental health. Moms, of course, face a whole host of stressors under the best of circumstances. For moms in poverty, those stressors are magnified.

"Racial, ethnic and income disparities are narrowing in some areas," said Dr. Megan Smith, an assistant professor of Psychiatry, Child Study and Public Health at the Yale University School of Medicine, who runs the program. "But that is not true in mental health." Only one-third of the people who need mental health care get it, according to Smith.

The stigma that continues to surround mental health care keeps mothers from seeking help. Using community health workers to do outreach — a model most often seen in the developing world — and providing services in non-traditional places like grocery stores breaks down barriers.

Meeting with other mothers was tremendously helpful to Gabrielle. "You see you are not alone," she said. Some women in the group were facing problems that she saw as more serious than her own, such as the death of a family member. "I felt like a support for them," she said.

Gabrielle said that the staff members at MOMS showed extraordinary concern for her. They would call or even stop by her apartment if she missed a session. "They cared about me. I know it was their job, but you could tell that they really loved what they were doing. They were committed," she said.

MOMS also has a research component and did the first study linking diaper need to maternal mental health needs.

Smith said that she's been contacted by groups around the country who want to learn from the MOMS model. That's good news, because it has clearly made a difference for mothers and kids in New Haven. Recently, Gabrielle's 9-year-old was talking with a friend whose mother had also lost a job. Her son urged the friend to get his own mother into MOMS. "It really works," Gabrielle's son said.