Tag Archives: mental health

Melissa Bernstein Offers Hope For Anguish, Depression

In the toy industry, Melissa Bernstein is a rock star.

The world knows her as co-founder and chief creative officer — with her co-founder husband and fellow native Westporter — of Melissa & Doug. The $500 million company is legendary for its toys that encourage interactive, hands-on play, and spark the imagination of children in a way screens and high-tech never can.

Yet for most of her life, Melissa Bernstein did not even know herself.

She and Doug built the business from scratch. It was their idea, their execution, their 32 years of hard — yet very fulfilling — work.

Melissa Bernstein, with some of her creations.

They married in 1992. They have 6 accomplished children, ranging in age from 27 to 13. They built a beautiful home.

Yet all along — for as long as she can recall — Melissa lived with existential anguish and depression. It made her who she is.

And at times, it made her want to end her life.

Existential anguish and depression is not a DSM diagnosis. But her torment — a crisis of doubt and meaning — was frighteningly real. It was “the darkest nihilism. Life seemed absurd and futile.”

Her mother remembers Melissa screaming every day, for the first year of her life. It was not colic; these were terrifying shrieks. “I had no words or creative solutions to what I was feeling,” Melissa says.

Melissa and Doug Bernstein.

Melissa grew up with that pain. But she was creative too. She wrote verses, and was a musician. But in college, realizing she would never play professionally, she quit music cold turkey.

She sought solace in academic performance. Looking back, she says, that turn “took me out of my heart, and into my head.” She felt “completely and utterly worthless.”

It was a coping mechanism involving denial, resistance, avoidance and dissonance, Melissa realizes now.

She created a “perfect, fictitious world” in her head. She lived in that “blissful place, filled with imaginary friends,” for at least a decade.

To the outside world, Melissa projected a façade of perfection. She worked, volunteered with the Levitt Pavilion, Music Theater of Connecticut and July 4th fireworks. She ferried her children to every sport and activity. The biggest criticism of her as a parent, she says, was that she seemed “emotionless.”

Doug and Melissa Bernstein, with their 6 children.

“Part of my validation was being a martyr,” she says. “I had to put one foot in front of the other. I had to think of my kids before me.”

Doug did not have an inkling of what Melissa was going through. But neither did she.

“I couldn’t let this demon come up,” she notes. “If I did, it would have taken me down.”

Five years ago, Melissa began to “connect the dots in a profound way.” She was exhausted. “I wanted to stop racing. It’s hard to resist everything you feel and are,” she says.

She listened to podcasts like “The Good Life Project.” She read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” She learned that “as humans, our number one motive is a search for meaning.”

Melissa says, “My heart stopped. With profound alacrity, I knew what I was afflicted with.”

The more she learned, the more she realized that highly creative people — Beethoven, Mozart, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Hemingway — shared her anguish.

For the first time in her life, Melissa did not feel alone.

Understanding her hypersensitivity to “both the beauty of the world, and unbearable pain,” she cried for 3 days.

She had awakened a window into her soul. She came to terms that her creative blessing was also a curse.

Melissa Bernstein

All those verses she’d written; all the toys she’d developed — they were outward signs of who Melissa Bernstein is. Now, she knew, she had to accept internally who she is too.

She could not do it alone. With the help of therapist Loredana Trandu, she has learned to make sense of her life.

“My journey with her was arduous. It was the lowest I ever felt,” Melissa says. “But she was there every step of the way. She’d been to that spot. I wasn’t scared.”

Now, Melissa wants to help others.

First, she shared her story on Jonathan Fields’ “Good Life” project. Hundreds of listeners responded. Their words were soulful and heart-wrenching. One told Melissa, “you put words to what was ineffable and hidden.”

She emailed or called every one. She followed up in depth with nearly 100.

Now, she and Doug have developed LifeLines. An ecosystem — books, videos, podcasts, community — its goal is to “help frame those soul-searching questions that allow you to explore your authentic self and discover what makes you tick.”

Melissa Bernstein reads her “LifeLines” book.

LifeLines is based on 3 premises:

  • You are not alone
  • We all have the capacity to channel darkness into light
  • We will not find true fulfillment and peace until we look inward and accept ourselves.

Completely free — funded by the Bernsteins — it’s about to roll out nationally. Major media like the Washington Post, USA Today, People, Elle magazine and “Good Day New York” are covering LifeLines this week and next.

Westporter David Pogue airs a segment on “CBS Sunday Morning” this weekend (March 14).

David Pogue tapes a segment with Melissa Bernstein, in her Westport home.

LifeLines has become Melissa’s life. She has recorded nearly 3 dozen podcasts, and oversees every aspect of the project. Yet she still takes time each day to speak to individual men and women — people just like her, who feel the same overpowering existential anguish and depression.

Being on the national stage — and speaking to strangers — is important. But Melissa is our neighbor. Sometimes the hardest part of baring our souls is doing it to those who know us well.

The other day at a Staples basketball game, a woman looked away when they met. Then she said, “I’m so sorry.”

Melissa felt badly that the woman felt so uncomfortable.

“We need a huge education program,” she says. “We know what to say, and not say, when someone dies. Now we need a new national conversation on how to talk about mental health.”

It’s taken Melissa Bernstein her entire life to discover herself, and open that internal dialogue. Now, with LifeLines, she’s opening up to the world.

The chief creative officer of one of the world’s leading toy companies is playing for keeps.

(PS: On Thursday, March 18 at 7 p.m., the Westport Library hosts a conversation with Melissa — and me — about her journey. Click here to register.)

 

Human Services: Don’t Neglect Mental Health!

This afternoon — as Westport schools mark 6 weeks since closing — town officials reminded residents that despite physical isolation, we all need social connections. They’re key to maintaining mental and physical health.

Department of Human Services director Elaine Daignault says:

When we must stay at home, it can be challenging to maintain connections, and manage new or existing mental health matters. Many of us are learning to live with uncertainty, which requires a degree of patience with ourselves and others.

Identifying and discussing your own anxieties and fears is one way to manage the stress that we all feel. You may also choose to create a daily routine that includes exercise, a hobby and time for yourself.

Sitting with this discomfort is part of the process. So is finding activities to engage your mind and body to relieve yourself from the worry. For those experiencing significant anxiety and depression, please acknowledge that you need help and seek additional support. Start with your primary care provider and/or your mental health provider. Most are offering tele-health visits from the comfort of your own homes.

Many therapists are now online.

If you’re having trouble getting started, or require a personal conversation to determine which options are best for you, Department of Human Services staff are available by phone and/or email Mondays through Fridays. 830 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (203-341-1050 or Humansrv@westportct.gov).

We are happy to speak with you, and will provide resources to support you and your families now and in the future.

We also recognize that this can be a stressful time for families. Westport Together was launched in late 2019 as an alliance between the town, Westport Public Schools, PTA and many local non-profits to strengthen the health and well-being of youth and families.

While in-person events have been canceled, we continue to provide relevant and dynamic content on our Westport Together Facebook page. Click here to see. Stay tuned for more details on excellent panel discussions ahead.

Westport Psychiatrist: Physical, Mental Health More Important Than Ever

Dr. Rishon Stember is a Westport psychiatrist. He writes:

These days, physical and mental health are more important than ever.

As a psychiatrist I am receiving many calls from patients experiencing panic attacks and insomnia.  Unfortunately, this is not unusual.

Dr. Rishon Stember

It is very important for people experiencing elevated anxiety to know that they are not alone. This is the time to reach out for help. Please call or email your physician or mental health professional for guidance at this time. Telemedicine is now the norm.

In my own practice, sessions are by phone and medications are being filled electronically.

Stay vigilant about staying home if possible. Wash hands often. Keep social distance. Get plenty of sleep. Be kind to yourself emotionally.

Telephone friends and family. Don’t hesitate to acknowledge the reality of the situation, but know that it is temporary.

Mindfulness is a a great tool to use. Don’t think about the past or the future; just concentrate on being in the present. Try to take time, and appreciate every small activity you do. Take in sights, sounds, flavors and aromas.

Often, talking to a mental health professional and/or medication can be useful.  As with a headache, meds can be helpful until the headache is gone.

We will get through this. Stay strong, healthy and positive.

Alex Drexler couldn’t sleep. He took his dog on a 5-mile walk. The sunrise helped.

Substance Misuse, Mental Health Survey Now Live

Substance misuse and mental health are national issues.

Local ones, too.

But how prevalent are they? And if we don’t know the answers, how can anyone help?

Today, the Westport Prevention Coalition launches an online survey. It was created by the Human Services Department, in partnership with the Westport Prevention Coalition and Positive Directions.

The anonymous survey will “provide helpful information as the Coalition embarks on prevention and resource development efforts addressing substance misuse, mental health services and overall wellness across the lifespan,” says Human Services director Elaine Daignault.

The goal is to gain input from a cross-section of age groups. It will
complement the youth and parent surveys administered through Positive Directions bi-annually in partnership with Westport Public Schools.

Click here for the survey. For more information, or to obtain a paper copy, call 203-341-1050.