The human mind is one of the most complex structures in the universe. Even in early infancy, it is capable of taking in a wide variety of inputs. Still, in our early years, we’ve only unlocked a small portion of its potential. Our brains actually continue to develop into our twenties. Accordingly, the U.S. Government embraces a definition of youth that continues until we turn 25. Nurturing the development of young minds to stay healthy through adulthood is a primary goal of SAMHSA’s Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health) and the Center of Excellence for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation.
Neurons on the Move
Until recently, it was assumed that the movement of neurons—the brain cells that carry messages—into the cerebral cortex occurred entirely during fetal development, as happens in other animals. However, a study published in the journal Science on October 6, 2016 suggests that neurons actually continue to migrate into the brain through the first 7 months after birth. To some neuroscientists, this discovery underscores the importance of positive, healthy experiences during infancy. The migration occurs in an area of the brain associated with thinking, emotional development, and executive function, so it is especially important to make sure we support the process. SAMHSA is investing in efforts to lessen the impact of emotional disturbance and mental illness on America’s youth.
Project LAUNCH promotes the wellness of children up to 8 years old by addressing the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral aspects of their development. The goals are for all children to be living in safe, supportive, and healthy families and communities, and to enter school ready to succeed. The program ensures caregivers of young children understand how to promote healthy social and emotional development, and can recognize when a child is experiencing social or emotional challenges. Our partners for this effort include the Administration for Children and Families, the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation
The Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation is an evidence-based approach requiring a partnership between a mental health provider and parent or other caregiver. This approach relies on building the caregiver’s skills and knowledge to expand opportunities for children to thrive. A home visitor sometimes needs support in helping a new mom recognize depression and find help. A child care provider can be supported in successfully helping a traumatized child feel safe enough in the classroom to make friends and participate in learning experiences.
Forty percent of children entering school lack at least one of four key attributes: strong social and emotional health, interest in learning, ability to focus and pay attention, and self-regulation so interventions such as this one are a critical resource. With training, caregivers can help children develop these attributes. For example, Julie was a toddler enrolled in child care. After Julie’s mother had a baby and experienced post-partum depression, Julie’s behavior at child care also changed: she became noticeably sad, clingy and withdrawn from activities she previously enjoyed. The Mental Health Consultant worked with Julie’s parents and teacher to develop a plan that helped Julie identify, express, and manage her emotions, and helped her mother to recognize and address symptoms of post-partum depression.
Raising a child brings many happy times and many responsibilities. Promoting positive mental health is one of those responsibilities, but it shouldn’t cause undue stress or worry. Fortunately, there are many great resources to support caregivers, and to provide important information about early childhood development and behavior. In addition to mental health consultation, caregivers might be interested to learn more from Learn the Signs, Act Early and Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive! If you have any specific mental health concerns, use the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to find someone who can help.