Featured AME Researcher: Danielle Roubinov, PhD.

Dr. Danielle Roubinov is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UNC and the director of the Child and Adolescent Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program (CHAAMP). 

Dr. Roubinov’s research focuses on early life experiences of stress and trauma, and the effects on children’s mental health, development, and overall well-being. She currently directs the Child and Adolescent Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program (CHAAMP) in the UNC Department of Psychiatry, developing interventions for both the prevention and treatment of mental health problems in youth.



What sparked your interest in studying early life experiences of stress and trauma? 

Early experiences of stress and trauma are highly prevalent and can exert truly profound impacts on health and development across the lifespan. It’s important to think about these childhood experiences as formative, but not deterministic. This means that although early adversities increase risk, it’s not the case that all people who are exposed to adversity will go on to develop physical and mental health problems. 

I’m really motivated by this idea. It led me to want to conduct research on how we promote resilience - what are the things that we can leverage in children’s natural environments (for example, positive relationships with teachers) and formal treatment (research-backed programs) that can help ensure children are on a healthy developmental trajectory, even when they’ve been exposed to adversity? Research can help us answer these questions and contribute to prevention and intervention programs. 

Can you tell us more about your recent study “Long-Term Effects of a Prenatal Mindfulness Intervention on Depressive Symptoms in a Diverse Sample of Women”?

This study examined the long-term effects of a prenatal wellness intervention on maternal mental health and depressive symptoms. We recruited pregnant women from low-income groups and communities of color that are disproportionately exposed to stressors and adversities. During their pregnancy, about half of the women were led through weekly classes in mindfulness-based classes and half of the women received standard care. After eight years, we found that women who received the mindfulness classes were half as likely to be depressed eight years later when compared to women who only received standard care.

Depression is not only hard on mothers, but it can also negatively impact offspring. These findings are really important because it suggests a brief, relatively low-cost prenatal intervention can benefit women during pregnancy, and may also have offer downstream benefits for her offspring. Given the efficacy of this intervention, we hope that these classes can eventually be scaled up in size to reach larger populations of pregnant women! 

Can you share more about your study "Is it me or my child?", and what the findings suggest about the prevalence of depressive symptoms in mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder?

Maternal and child mental health are often associated, but we don’t know very much about this relation in families with a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In this study, we looked at the prevalence of maternal depression and also examined how depression was related to children’s behavior problems in families with a child with ASD and families with a neurotypical child. Notably, we found high levels of depressive symptoms in mothers of children with (ASD) - 1 out of every 2 moms of children with autism had clinically significant symptoms.  

We also found that maternal depressive symptoms were not predictive of behavioral problems in their children, even in families with children with ASD. This suggests that maternal depression isn’t making children’s behavior problems worse, which is especially important for mothers to hear, especially mothers of children with ASD who may really struggle with depression and feelings of guilt related to their child’s diagnosis. 

This work emphasizes the need to provide family-focused interventions for all families (especially families of children with special needs). When children are struggling, it’s just as important to support the child as it is to support the parent.  

Where do you hope to take your research next?

I’m deeply concerned about the marked rise in child and adolescent mental health problems, which have been increasing for the past decade and significantly exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic. This is especially true for children and families of color, those with limited economic resources, and those exposed to significant adversities. A substantial number of children are never adequately assessed for mental health problems and are not offered (or do not have access to) treatment. 

Particularly over the last several years, I’ve been studying brief, research-backed interventions for children and families exposed to adversity and those with mental health concerns. In many cases, this type of care can be delivered by master-level clinicians or peer support specialists in families’ homes, by telehealth, or in pediatric primary care offices, which can greatly increase access to effective treatments. I’m excited to continue this work! 

I also want to continue to take a broader, family-focused perspective on treating children’s mental health problems. As we’ve shown in our prior research, there is a very potent intergenerational nature of mental health problems. In other words, parent mental health problems increase risk for children’s mental health problems and vice versa – child mental health problems increase risk for parent mental health problems. To effectively support children in distress, we must also address and support parent mental health problems, but this is lacking in many of our evidence-based programs. These programs often only focus on child mental health. Failing to address parent mental health may undermine how effective we are in our efforts to help children. I’m eager to continue to work on developing models of care that are integrated (dually addressing parent and child mental health) using evidence-based practices. Prevention is also key – if we can prevent parent mental health problems (as early as during pregnancy!), this will have downstream benefits for two generations. 

Visit Dr. Roubinov's UCSF profile here.