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Could infant mental health have saved us?

Demonstrators preparing to march in Newsbar, 107 University Place on Saturday 12th November, 2016
Demonstrators all along 5th Avenue on 12th November, 2016

These are the scenes from the cafe inside and up along 5th Avenue as I write this.


It is hard to convey but watching everyone in peaceful protest: holding placards, shouting and chanting together is quite an emotional experience. This is not just today but all week.
So there are many ways of coping with the shock, sadness and anger. Samantha Bee helps us to laugh rather than cry (  Another way is to devise theories and work out how we got here. How did this happen?!

If you will, allow me the following stream of thought.  The need to make a logical connection could lead us to say: Economic crisis = struggle = blame = ripe climate for inciting bigotry = electorate make bad choices.

Let's go back to the economic crisis.  Why did that happen? It's complicated but it started with the bankers.  People were rich and wanted to get richer.  Hence layer upon layer of hot air and exploitation of dreams leading to sub-prime lending. The story has similarities in the US and the UK.  It led to an absolute implosion in the system.  I am puzzled about what prevented us seeing this coming.  It seems we were all excited by the bubble.

Why the need to get richer and richer beyond all rationale? Wealth gives us ultimate power and independence.  It's a good feeling: 'I don't need to depend on others, on relationships, on community, I can do anything with money'. This need for supreme independence (over and above all other needs) would be an 'Avoidant' personality trait.  So you see where I am heading as a parent infant psychologist with this?
Going back to infancy.  As a tiny baby, when our attachment strategies are forming, this is when we could learn that in order to survive, we must inhibit out vulnerable emotions, look after ourselves, be as independent as possible.  Such early formation means these are our deepest instincts.  It's about staying alive.  Let's get this clear I am not saying all bankers had a traumatic babyhood.  Just trying understand why greed superseded common sense.  We are all a little bit responsible.

The next stage in our demise, is coined very well by Mike Baum (played by Steve Carell) in the movie, 'The Big Short'.  In despair he says: 'In a few years people will do what they always do and blame the economic crisis on immigrants and the poor'. Never has that line been more true than 2016's disastrous voting outcomes of Brexit and Trump.

The final step in trying to make logical sense of it is to ask: how were so many people in the red states of America putting all the blame for problems onto immigrants and others?  They were encouraged by somebody, yes - but only because they felt vulnerable, angry, not considered, not heard.  These are quite infantile states.  A psychoanalyst would explain 'splitting and projection' with more finesse, but I will try my best.  Splitting off the negative from ourselves and projecting it onto others, saying they are the ones with the problem, begins in babyhood.  The splitting of our carer figure into 'all bad' or 'all good' is an 'early primitive defence mechanism' (a way of dealing with being overwhelmed).  As we are just tiny we can't understand or cope with the idea that the carer who meets our needs (it's called the good breast to credit Klein) is the same one we are furious with (bad breast) when they don't get it right (as no parents get it right 100% of the time).  To cope, we temporarily believe as if they are two different people.  The theory is that adequate loving care allows us to integrate bad/less satisfactory bits and good bits so that we are able to tolerate that there is both 'good' and 'bad' in all of us.  If we stay with the primitive mechanism due to inappropriate caregiving and without being helped to mature, we are in danger of using splitting as a defence against our vulnerability in later life. For example idealising ourselves, and putting all the negative onto the 'other'.  Does this make sense? Please say if not and I can explain some more.


So could infant mental health have saved us?  Well, obviously this is a generalisation and I am incredibly biased but...YES.  Infant mental health with some of the 'privileged' who struggled so hard to get their needs met as babies and grew up to became hardened and money grabbing.  Infant mental health with the 'underprivileged' who struggled to get their needs met as babies and became ripe for reliance on racism, sexism or homophobia to make sense of their world.

OF COURSE, I am the first to admit this is over simplistic, and perhaps a little bit (okay maybe a tiny bit!) skewed towards my own particular area of work.  But remember that we have now established both through neuroscience and research (replicated and longitudinal) that attachment is the foundation for social and emotional mental health.  Like the foundations of a house, this needs to be solid, secure and safe.  The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard explains this well ( ).

As always I am very curious, what do you think?  Please don't hesitate or be shy to give me your opinion.  Post a response.

16 thoughts on “Could infant mental health have saved us?

  1. Katie

    Great read Kerry thank you. I'm with you. It's certainly an argument for the importance of the work you do for future generations.

    1. DrKT

      Thanks Katie! There are so many angles of course...parent infant being just one but I like to think it's a good place to start, at the beginning.

  2. Jenny King

    Kerry, I am really enjoying your thoughts during your time in the US (and what a time to be there!). You're so good at making connections between things, and great at explaining them, such a pleasure to read.

    1. DrKT

      Thank you Jenny!

      As a psychologist, I am interested in what you think of the ideas in my next blog about early identification of ASD. Please tell me what you think...

  3. Ellen Houston

    This is an interesting take, perhaps even a big leap into the micro foundations of the electorate and US Pres-elect. Your points resonate in terms of what motivates both the new leaders of UK and US. From the US, many critics have argued that based on Trump's performance in the debates, as well as the "low" he has taken both campaigns prior to election, Trump's behavior was almost infantile. By the way -- Mr. Trump is in his mid 70s! So if you were trying to make the subtle point of how NOT to create a misogenistic, bigot with authoritarian tendencies, in AN ADULT.... THANK YOU! My fear is that all the very relevant and insightful analysis that you put forward will not help with our current trajectory in the US. Presently the very much needed social and child programs that are needed to prevent "splitting and projection" are most likely to get cut as Republicans dismantle what is our already very lame social safety net.

    1. DrKT

      Hi Ellen,

      Yes it is a leap you are right!
      And yes it is also heartbreaking to learn about the social and child programs that will now be reconsidered and, let's face it, changed in the Republican's direction of travel. I only hope that the programs for early intervention and prevention for infants and families still get championed. How ironic that some of the very people who voted Trump will find that the healthcare they are depending on may diminish and disappear. How could this happen? It again reminds me of Brexit. Some of the European laws so needed to protect the vulnerable in society will be dismantled and this will have a long-term impact on the disaffected people who voted leave in poorer parts of our country e.g. over maternity leave or sick pay.

      Coming back to theory and making sense of the incomprehensible, when I next see you I must ask you about feminist perspectives on the election outcome as I have had some interesting discussions about this point in history for the US.

    1. DrKT

      Hi Mary,
      yes it's a similar understanding in the concerns about boarding school and our leaders isn't it?

      Thanks for that link, a really interesting article- not least because a few people close to me personally have been to boarding school!

  4. Allison Barrett

    Very interesting though it feels like a lot of work needs to be done in parent infant work here and in the US to begin to make any change for the future. A bit worrying when half the population are suffering from this - how do you cure an elecotrate? May be easier to cure the economy....

    1. DrKT

      Hi Allison,
      yes there is a lot of work to be done but in my opinion it is much less work (and cost) to prevent rather than struggle to cure.

      Top economists back this, see Heckman ( in the U.S. and most recently Bauer et al ( in the U.K.
      So what I am arguing is that it is better for the economy, AND for families if we invest in infant mental health. Does that answer your comment enough?

      Please tell me what you think as it is one thing to be steeped in this field and another thing to be good at explaining the argument to others and I am more than happy to give more information.

  5. Dr Em Perera

    Hi Kerry. A real treat to read your thoughts drawing connections of parenting style that influences infants' search for security with the insatiable materialism in our western world. Thank you for raising awareness of the need to take a longterm view to resolve our social problems ie; raise secure children if want socially responsible adults.

    1. DrKT

      Hi Em,
      thanks for your comment!

      Yes we need to raise secure children as they are our future.
      I have been describing the UK system to colleagues here and they are always so impressed to hear about our Children's Centres and joined up working - but then I have to tell them about our recent cuts to Children's Centres and all 0-5's services too which is a bit gutting. It is crazy, short termism to cut services to families with babies when we know what a difference they can make.

  6. Alistair Mayor

    Hi Kerry
    I've had an interesting response to Trump's election, having some healthy cynicism for the whole elitist two horse race, and some faith that half the population (as here in Britain) aren't stupid. I've asked the question of both bad breasts, and see the split more in terms of the rulers and the ruled (the wise and the ignorant.) Stepping out of the horizontal hostility, and into the hierarchical i have a renewed energy for searching for the good breast. So far falling upon Naomi Wolf and Richard D Wolff, not related but a funny coincidence. The elite want to keep us infantile, easier to control and sell stuff too. My hope is that Trump and Brexit are both calls to wake up and grow up - politics is way more complicated and entertaining when we engage with it up close, and watch out for divide and conquer - whilst the kids bicker it's business as usual.
    You did ask, and i'd like to know about Trump and Clinton's early years.
    All the best

    1. DrKT

      Hi Ali,

      Hmmm that is very interesting and of course I get the divide and rule idea. And will also read Wolf and Wolff when I get the chance.

      One of the main questions I have been asked here when Americans know about my specialism is can I tell them about Trumps early years to help them understand. I have not researched it as I feel averse to learning more about the guy tbh.

      I guess what you are saying though is that getting bogged down with the details would anyway prevent us looking at it on a macro level and seeing capitalism in all its glory and uglyness. Walking around Times Square yesterday I felt electrified by the dripping wealth (and led lighting!). Inequality is so striking: compare that to 100 blocks up where I am staying in East Harlem. Most people are Spanish speaking and very poor..(there are 3 soup kitchens near me, and big queues). It is shocking that a baby born one end of Manhattan could have such different chance in life from a baby born at the other!

    1. DrKT

      Hello Ken, thank you so much for your interest and support! We don't have gift aid but we do have a donate button on our website
      Just to be clear, BrightPIP is not yet a charity but is in the process of converting from a not-for-profit CIC (community interest company) to charitable status.


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