Rahshida Atkins PhD, APNc

Raised in a low-income household headed by a single mother in inner-city New Jersey, Rahshida Atkins triumphed over the challenging circumstances of her childhood, and now she’s helping other women and children do the same.

Atkins attended some of the lowest-achieving public schools in New Jersey, but she nevertheless saw education as a path out of poverty. She studied hard, became her high school’s valedictorian, earned a scholarship to Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing with highest honors and a near-perfect grade-point-average. She went on to earn her master’s degree in nursing, followed by a doctorate, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (NJNI) New Jersey Nursing Initiative.

Now at the end of her long and successful educational journey, Atkins, PhD, APNc, is looking back to her childhood, but this time through the lens of science. Atkins recently received a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, where she will continue to study depression among Black single mothers—a population at high risk for the condition. “My mom was a single Black mother, and many female relatives and friends are as well,” she says. “I saw them struggle with psychosocial and mental challenges.”

Even when women had outside supports, such as government-provided health insurance coverage or access to free transportation, depression and other mental health challenges had the power to rob them of the motivation to care for themselves and their children, Atkins says.

Identifying and effectively treating depression, however, isn’t easy. The causes can be many, ranging from poor and unstable living conditions, intermittent employment, short-term relationships, poverty, racism, and other psychosocial challenges. And some women are reluctant to seek treatment or are unaware that they are suffering from mental illness. Even so, there aren’t clear, evidence-based interventions to treat and prevent the problem in this particular population.

Atkins is working to change that. As a New Jersey Nursing Scholar, she studied a group of more than 200 single Black mothers in Camden and Trenton, N.J., to develop a theory about the cultural and psychosocial factors that contribute to depression in the population. She found that anger, stress, perceived racism, and low self-esteem were linked in different ways to the development of depressive symptoms among study participants, and she used the findings to develop a theory to guide nursing research and practice in the area.

More recently, she completed a study to examine predictors and outcomes of depression in more than 160 Black single mothers. She found that negative thinking contributes to depression in these mothers, which subsequently diminishes their participation in positive health practices and their perception of social support.

She hopes her work will enable health care providers to better understand the causes of depression in the population and make more informed recommendations for treatment and prevention. “I want to prevent depressive symptoms, or diminish them, and improve quality-of-life so these women can maintain employment, enjoy stable relationships, and become productive members of society,” she says. That, she adds, will be good for women, their children, and for society too.