Brianna Natale ’16 has long been concerned about the mental health disorders that impact nearly one in five U.S. adults. A dual major in biological sciences and psychology, Natale has also learned that poverty, extreme stress and low social support increase the risk for these illnesses. For Natale, aiding people affected by these disorders is about more than promoting well being. It’s about advocating for social justice.
However, it wasn’t until the Latham, N.Y., native was sitting in a psychology class at Le Moyne, listening to a discussion about parenting, that she began to consider seriously the impact a new or expectant mother’s mental health has on her child. She was immediately intrigued and began to read about the subject voraciously. She wondered: What happens during embryonic development when the child’s mother has a mood disorder? Are there ways to prevent a mental illness before it occurs? Natale soon learned that researchers at the Developmental Psychology Lab at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, were asking similar questions. They were studying how maternal prenatal stress impacts infant health.
Beginning this fall, Natale will contribute to these scientists’ work. She received a prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Program Study/Research Grant to the Netherlands. Over the course of two years, Natale will pursue a master’s degree in behavioral science research at Radboud and work on the Developmental Psychology Lab’s project, Basal Influences on the Baby’s Development. Her aim during that time will be to research how environmental factors impact a mother’s health during pregnancy and, by extension, her child’s physical and psychological health. She hopes that work her will eventually contribute to better treatment and prevention strategies for mental illness worldwide.
“Mental illness is very prevalent, not just in our country, but around the world,” Natale said. “If there is a way to help new mothers and their children achieve good mental health, then I think we have an obligation to do so. Even if it is something as simple as encouraging a doctor to have a conversation with an expectant or new mother who seems to be struggling, that could have long-term positive implications.”
‘Brianna is a remarkable student, and this accomplishment is a testament to the high caliber work our students and their faculty mentors are doing,” said Kathleen Costello-Sullivan, Ph.D., professor of English and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “When a student uses her gifts and intellect to aid others, as Brianna is doing, it is so gratifying ... She is making the most impact she can. I anticipate that this will be a life-changing experience for her.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide about 10 percent of pregnant women and 13 percent of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. The rate is even higher in developing countries, where 15.8 percent of expectant mothers and 19.9 percent of new mothers experience a mental disorder. The WHO further found that virtually any woman can develop a mental disorder during pregnancy, and that “infants can be affected by and are highly sensitive to the environment and quality of care.”
After she completes her master’s degree, Natale plans to return to the U.S., where she will enroll in a Ph.D or joint Ph.D.-M.D. program. Her long-term goal is to conduct research on prenatal health and to establish a clinical practice. She especially hopes to work in impoverished communities with high instances of mental illness and less access to treatment.
“I know that we can’t completely reduce this risk of mental illness,” she said. “However, if we can improve our understanding of it and ensure that more people receive adequate treatment, that would be extremely rewarding.”