Jo LANG Kim, Ph.D. ’90, Perinatal Health Director

Dr. Jo LANG Kim ’90 has been a champion, advocate, and an ally for pregnant and postpartum women’s mental health for nearly 15 years. Determined to destigmatize mood disorders and prevent women from suffering in silence, Jo leads the nation’s only professionally-staffed 24/7 crisis line for perinatal and postpartum women at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois. She also oversees a perinatal depression screening program, sits on the board of a non-profit, Beyond the Baby Blues, which provides access to free support groups for struggling women, teaches medical students at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, and partners with leaders in the field to research and identify new ways to treat perinatal mood disorders. An Ellis alumna from the Class of 1990, Jo reflects on her commitment to helping women through their darkest hours and offers advice for the next generation of Ellis girls.
Years at Ellis:Grade 9 to Grade 12
Location:Wilmette, IL
Occupation:Director of Perinatal Depression Program
Education:B.A. Sociology, The University of Chicago; Ph.D. Clinical Psychology, Northwestern University

How did you get into your line of work?
Interestingly, I originally set out to pursue a career in medicine. Over time, I realized what fascinated me most was the emotional and psychological reactions people have to their medical and health-related experiences. I discovered the field of clinical health psychology and knew it was the perfect career path for me. Through my graduate and postdoctoral training, I worked with a lot of different medical patient populations, including people coping with cancer, chronic pain, stroke, amputation, and spinal cord injury. Just as I finished my fellowship in psychosocial oncology and health psychology, the hospital system where I’d been training was launching a new program dedicated to perinatal mood disorders. Perinatal mental health was a relatively uncommon specialty field at the time, and I was intrigued. I accepted a position in that program and everything else unfolded from there.

Why did you decide to dedicate your career to perinatal care?
When I was in graduate school, I witnessed a close friend struggle with severe depression during her pregnancy. It was very difficult for her to find the help she needed. Many medical and mental health professionals at the time (late 1990’s) simply didn’t recognize that depression is just as common during pregnancy as it is in the postpartum.

The program I now run was funded in memory of a woman named Jennifer Mudd Houghtaling, who lost her life to postpartum depression in 2001. When I met Jennifer’s parents, two things struck me: one, how much they had suffered as a result of losing their daughter, and two, the fact that they were a supportive, concerned family with virtually-unlimited resources at their disposal, yet they still lost their daughter. If it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.

I wanted to be a part of the solution, to help prevent other women and families from suffering the way my friend did and the way Jennifer and her family did. Over time, knowing the work I do has touched the lives of thousands of women and families has been both rewarding and motivating.

What lessons has your work life taught you?
For one thing, I’ve learned not to judge. Mental illness can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time. It doesn’t matter how much money or education you have, what race or gender you identify with, or how big your support network is—no one is immune. Many of the moms I encounter have no history of mental illness and no identifiable risk factors—they’re literally blindsided, and they face a lot of stigma in recognizing their illness and getting the help they need. Much of the work I do is focused on eliminating those barriers.

My work life has also reinforced the importance of self-care and finding balance. It’s the advice I give to women who are struggling every day, and it’s advice that’s important to continuously implement for myself. It’s like they say on an airplane, get your own oxygen mask on securely before you attempt to assist others.

How did your Ellis education prepare you for college and career?
Ellis taught me how to think critically and how to communicate effectively. Those skills have helped me in numerous ways throughout college, graduate school, and my career.

What is your best Ellis memory?
I have very fond memories of the class trip to Stratford, Ontario for the Shakespeare Festival and of the Student United Nations trips to Washington, D.C. each year. My best memories, though, are of the relationships I formed at Ellis, many of which have withstood the test of time over more than 25 years since graduation!

Was there a teacher or teachers at Ellis who had a particularly strong influence on your life?
Mrs. Callomon taught me to never stop asking questions and never stop believing in myself, and Dr. Greco taught me how to express myself effectively through writing. I carry each of those lessons with me to this day, and use those skills on a daily basis.

For Ellis students reading this: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?
I know there’s a lot of pressure to figure out your answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d say, don’t get too stressed-out or overwhelmed by any of that. When I was an Upper School student at Ellis, I didn’t even know the profession on which I’ve built my career existed. Take advantage of every learning opportunity and experience you can, leave your options open, and your passion will find you.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Passionate, compassionate and (possibly a little too) sarcastic.

What woman inspires you and why?
I’ve had this weird obsession with First Ladies ever since reading the book Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our Recent History by Kati Morton many years ago. In particular, I’m inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama, because each was/is incredibly brilliant and influential in her own right and each very strategically used the political and social platform available to her as First Lady to champion important causes.

Do you consider yourself a feminist, and if so, what does that mean to you?
I do, and for me it means that there is no reason why women should be considered less-than in any domain as compared to men. Working in the perinatal mental health field, I’m confronted on a daily basis with the reality that women’s status as the childbearers—and, in many cases, primary child-rearers—sets the stage for inequality to persist. I’d argue, though, that it makes us better multitaskers, more flexible thinkers, and possibly even better-suited to tackle many of the complex problems that face our world today. Once society at large recognizes that, we’ll be unstoppable.

What is the last book you read?
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.