InBrief: Early Childhood Mental Health

What do we want
for our children? What’s our goal? Our goal is to have
productive citizens that are going to be part of
thriving communities. So how do we get
from here to there? As we grow up and as we move
into becoming functioning members of society,
our mental health is an important part of how we
perform our responsibilities as adults. Mental health can’t
be separated out from cognitive development
and language development and social competence. And they all have
their roots early on, in either a very sturdy
or a weak foundation. We certainly know that infants
and very young children can exhibit behaviors–
emotional behaviors, motor behaviors which are predictive in certain cases of subsequent mental illness. What are the early signs
of mental health problems? I think that when people
who look at children and think about
mental health problems that they have in mind, often,
is the kinds of mental health problems that we see in adults. They’re looking
to see the equivalent of a depressed adult in
a child or the equivalent of a schizophrenic
adult in a child. And I think that because of
the nature of development that when children have
mental health problems, they just look different. Some of the early signs of
greater risk for mental health problems are usually not called
mental health problems by people. They’re usually
called, you know, things like behavior
problems or a child who has difficulty
controlling his emotions. Some of these may be
early signs of what might be a mental health
problem later and some of which may be just differences among
perfectly healthy children. So what does good mental
health look like in a child? Good mental health
looks like a child who’s curious and interested in
the world and wants to learn and can sit and reflect at
times about what’s going on. It’s the ability to experience
love, affection, emotions. Get upset when
things are upsetting and bring yourself
back into levelness without needing
intense intervention. How do mental health impairments
development in early childhood? 21st century science
at the molecular level is very clear that all
aspects of brain function are the result of an
interaction between genetics and experience. Mental illness, as most
people think about it, is a very heavy
genetic component. Mental health,
behavior, personality also has a genetic
component but it’s much more malleable in the face
of environmental influences. Genes and experiences, as
far as nature is concerned, are just different ways of
setting up operating systems, brain systems, neurons. What happens when
a child experiences what we call toxic stress? Severe experiences that could
be damaging to its developing architecture. Those toxic
experiences essentially create this unstable
environment, this unstable foundation. If sound mental health provides
a foundation of stability for a child’s development,
mental health problems can be thought of
like a wobbly table. With a child or a
table, there may be many reasons for instability. Identifying which factor
is causing instability is the first step towards
solving the problem. So how do we restore stability
to a child’s mental health? We can detect the early signs of instability recognizing what these signs are provides a child with the opportunity then to be placed with healthcare professionals who are trained to develop a more balanced set of skills on the emotional control side. The prescription is to provide support for parents and in that environment in order to reduce conflict and that, in turn, will lead to a reduction in dysregulated behavior in the infant and young child. Most potential mental
health problems will not become
mental health problems if we respond to them early. Providing the right kinds
of supports and intervention early on will reduce
the extent to which this will be a potentially
more serious problem later.



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