Original article| Volume 21, ISSUE 4, P286-292, July 2011

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A Day in the Life of Women With a Serious Mental Illness: A Qualitative Investigation

Published:February 18, 2011DOI:



      Few studies have taken a holistic perspective to the lives of women with a serious mental illness (SMI). This qualitative study of women with an SMI describes and interprets women’s experiences and provides a new understanding about the nature and needs of these women.


      A convenience sample of 30 poor, urban, predominantly African-American women with a diagnosis of an SMI was recruited from an ongoing National Institutes of Mental Health study. Data collection involved face-to-face, in-depth interviews. The interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Data analysis occurred concurrently with data collection using a modified constant comparative method.


      The majority of the women self-identified as African American, single, having completed high school, and at the time of the interview were either unemployed or on disability. The most common SMI was major depression. A common topic in the women’s reflections on their lives was that of social disadvantage both before being diagnosed as well as after to their diagnosis with an SMI. Salient themes of their stories included social isolation, experiencing loss, and having a lack of control over one's own life decisions.


      The findings from this study revealed varied experiences among these women as well as the complexity of their situation. The enhanced understanding of women’s situation will allow mental health professionals to improve the quality of life for women with an SMI by taking a contextual approach to the treatment of their mental illness.
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      Christina P.C. Borba, PhD, MPH, is the Director of Research in the Chester M. Pierce, MD, Division of Global Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), an Assistant in Research at MGH, in the Department of Psychiatry, and an Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School.


      Lara DepAdilla, PhD, is an Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education at the Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health.


      Benjamin G. Druss, MD, MPH, is a Professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Behavioral Sciences and Health Education at the Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health. He is also the Rosalynn Carter Chair in Mental Health at Emory University.


      Frances A. McCarty, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Public Health at Georgia State University.


      Silke A. von Esenwein, PhD, is the Director of Research Projects in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health.


      Claire E. Sterk, PhD, is a Candler Professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health. She is also the Sr. Vice Provost for Academic Planning & Faculty Development at Emory University.