From the first day in the hospital after my son was born, I was sure I was failing him. No matter what I tried, I could not get him to latch on. The nurses encouraged me, but in the interim they told me I had to put my milk into a tiny cup so he wouldn’t get used to a bottle. Feedings quickly dissolved into screaming fits, his beautiful face turning bright red and his little body tensing up like a statue. Each cry filled my body with fear, and the more he cried the more fearful I became.
At 2 weeks old, my son started to cry for hours every night. As the weeks went by, I couldn’t bear his tears. And worse, I could not change my feelings of helplessness. I found myself in a spiral of self-deprecation and fear. For someone like me who had always had direction, purpose, an answer, and wisdom, even at a young age, I was beside myself.
Eventually and with the help and support of my incredible family and friends, I was able to find my way back. And now, seven years (and two more children!) later, I know that those early months of motherhood were the catalyst for my work ahead.
Why did I have such a difficult time? How had my predecessors managed? What was different about me or my situation?
As a trained mental health professional, I knew that we live in a time rich with insights into the inner workings of our emotions. Researchers have found genetic markers for mental health, brain scans show us biological differences, and social science research demonstrates correlations between environmental factors and development.
At the time, it was certainly helpful for me to understand that these factors existed and realize there were plenty of reasons – biological, environmental, genetic, and even some developmental – to explain why I was struggling. But it also made me wonder whether a trend was developing: Were we oversimplifying mental health to the detriment of those who needed care? Why didn’t we think of the brain as the complex organism it is? After all, we’re talking about billions of neurons, each singularly interconnected thousands of times, with no true scientific understanding of how they cooperate. It became clear to me that mental health is not something to “solve.” Rather, we must embrace this complexity as our minds are unlike any other aspect of our being.
And so, my husband and I started the Seleni Institute in 2011 to support women and their families as they navigate this complex landscape. And it was clear to me how to begin. I knew from my work with patients that those with strong family support fared better than those without. We see it time and time again in perinatal epigenetic studies – when a mother does well, her baby does better. So why not intervene at the start? If we could shape those early moments, and support mothers and families in those early days, then we could alter the course of their children’s lives.
When it comes to mental health, science still hasn’t solved the “which comes first” questions of environment and genetics. But in the meantime, our vision for Seleni embraces the complexity of our emotions, and we operate by a set of fundamental truths that guide every aspect of our work:
Kids do better when their mom is doing better
We now know that the children of mothers with untreated depression or anxiety develop differently. These children are more likely to have speech delays and are more accident-prone. They are also 12 times more likely to be accessing early intervention by age 5, have a lower IQ by the time they are 11, and are at greater risk of depression, anxiety, violence, and substance abuse by age 16. So when we help mothers early, we help stop the negative cycle of poor mental health.
Look at the constellation
Genetics, biology, environment – there’s no magic explanation to the complexity of mental health. We take a global approach, from family and medical issues to current stresses and developmental factors. As human beings, our reactions are informed by our unique constellation of experiences and genetic makeup. Sometimes in our lives the “stars” align and we can bear more difficulties. In other moments, we need help when nothing seems to be falling into place. When we look at it this way, getting help isn’t a sign of failure or weakness – it’s just the ebb and flow of what we need at different times in our lives.
Make help accessible
It’s ironic that someone suffering emotionally also bears the overwhelming burden of finding care at precisely the time when they’re least likely to feel able to ask for support or have the clarity to find it. We consider it our responsibility to make that task as easy as possible by normalizing the conversation, offering easy-to-understand information, and providing care that is accessible and affordable.
Worldwide, 1 in 4 people have mental health struggles. No family is untouched, but too often, these struggles are deeply buried family secrets. By keeping silent, we deny our children the opportunity to understand their history and their risk factors, and we perpetuate the idea that mental disorders are shameful or something to hide.
Make mental health a normal part of your family’s conversations. Just like you would talk about a family history of heart disease or diabetes, talk about your family's mental health history, and create the space for your children to talk about their feelings and emotions. You won’t just be sharing valuable information and context, you’ll be modeling self-care to your children by giving your family’s mental health history the same importance as physical health.
Emotional complexity is what makes us human, and that’s precisely what we value at Seleni. Our mental health does not exist in a vacuum; our history, development, family, genetics, and stressors continually shift, intertwining with our emotions and feelings. Sometimes we handle this interplay with ease, and sometimes we need help. But it’s a process to be treated with respect and awe, not fear and shame. So at Seleni, it is our privilege to support emotional wellness, and new families – and the future generations they represent – every day.