I recently had the honor to speak at the White House’s first ever United State of Women Summit, which brought together thousands of thought leaders to delve deeply into key gender equality issues and what needs to be done to improve the state of women in the United States and worldwide.
My fellow panelists and I were tasked with discussing both the impact of unintended pregnancy and the needs of teen mothers. It’s an important conversation and much of the hour was dedicated to the public health burdens of unplanned pregnancy. But when the moderator asked me about how we can manage mental health to delay repeat pregnancy, I realized it was time to reframe the conversation.
Back in 2011 my husband and I founded the Seleni Institute, a nonprofit organization and clinical center dedicated to maternal mental health. We focus on direct clinical care, online information and support, research funding, and professional trainings for clinicians. But Seleni exists first and foremost to destigmatize mental health. For far too long people have suffered alone with mental health issues and the cost is counted in lives.
Over 25% of new mothers – over 1 million women a year – suffer from depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder following the birth of a child. And that’s only the women who feel comfortable enough to come forward; we can only imagine what the real rates are. We know that certain factors may increase a woman’s risk of depression during and after pregnancy, including lack of support from family and friends, stressful life events, the age of the mother, or a personal history of depression or another mental illness. And we also know that the children of mothers who have untreated perinatal mood disorders are 12 times more likely to have a learning disability by the time they are in kindergarten, have a higher risk of depression and anxiety by the time they are 16, and are more prone to violence.
So in every conversation we have about pregnancy and motherhood we can’t ignore the 1 million mothers in the US who are suffering in silence – or really 2 million if we are including their children, that is 2 million people affected by mental health issues in this period alone every year.
So I answered the moderator’s question in two ways. First, by sharing our mission: Seleni supports women exactly where they are, no matter where they are. Whether they are teen moms, older moms, or pregnant with a baby with a chromosomal abnormality, Seleni seeks to hold their hand and stay with them until they don’t need the support anymore. Getting pregnant, not getting pregnant, suffering a stillbirth and recurrent miscarriages are far more common than we can imagine and can bring even the strongest women and families to their knees. Hallmark cards and magazines can mislead us to believe that motherhood is only a joyful experience.
The second part of my answer was a story about Anna, a Latina teen mom with postpartum depression who came to us through the Seleni Institute Teen Initiative. Everyone around her had told Anna that because she was 17 when her son was born she was not mature enough to love him. We told Anna that together we would help her develop the confidence to trust her instincts and know that no one could deny the love she had for her child. Anna had been burdened by a cultural message so laden with shame that girls like her rarely hear that they are capable of being good mothers. By validating her love for her son, we gave Anna the space to better bond with him and identify herself as a mom and not the “rebellious teen” she had been labeled as. Every teen mom deserves the same.
We know that girls with mental health issues, such as depression or bipolar disorder, are three times more likely to become teenage mothers. So when we treat the mom, we not only support her, but we help prevent her child from having mental illness. And if we prevent the child from having mental illness, maybe we will prevent unplanned teen pregnancy in the next generation. That is how we do it. One story at a time.
Because every woman and family is unique, whether we are working with a pregnant teen or a mother in her 40s, and we are continually tailoring our focus for the 300 women a week that we serve at our site and the 80,000 who visit our website monthly. We use a range of evidence-based interventions and articles to support mothers so they can in turn support their children and their families. And we are grateful for opportunities like the United State of Women Summit where we can speak about the mental health needs of women no matter their situation. Together we can support pregnant women and new moms and break generational cycles of poor mental health and inspire generations of quality mental health care.