Our county is abuzz with discussion around the importance of mental health. And we at Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County are heartened by the growing recognition of how this issue affects every aspect of our community’s social structure. We also are encouraged that there’s heightened debate around the role that law enforcement, municipalities and schools play in addressing mental health needs in the community.
But based on research, we know that mental health screening and intervention should start early – when a baby is born, if not before. Here’s why:
The mental health of parents and caregivers is absolutely vital to a baby’s brain growth and overall development. We may not be able to see children’s minds expand, the intricate brain architecture forming, but we can certainly see the results. When parents and caregivers are mentally healthy, they are able to respond warmly, confidently and consistently to a baby’s emotional, physical and intellectual needs. The child’s brain will blossom in response to that care. He will go into the world feeling safe, secure, curious and eager to take on the challenges life poses.
When primary caregivers are battling depression, substance abuse and other mental health issues, a baby’s cries may go unanswered, her coos and smiles ignored. Her brain will show the results of that neglect. She may not be as eager to play and explore. She may feel wary and unsure of herself and the world around her. From her perspective, school – and life – may seem like an obstacle, rather than an opportunity.
When children suffer from significant trauma or “toxic stress” (prolonged stress that comes from living in emotionally unstable or physically unsafe homes) their ability to thrive is greatly hindered. They often lack the tools needed to control their behavior, solve problems and appropriately handle adverse situations.
All of these make children more vulnerable to learning problems, developmental delays and behavioral issues, as well as later violence and criminal activity.
That’s why Children’s Services Council is bolstering our approach to mental health services for families with young children. During the next few months, we will increase the services we offer to pregnant women, new parents and their families, so there are more opportunities for mental health counseling and positive parent-child interaction.
Research tells us that if we can help families when their children are young, we’ll have a much better chance of reducing children’s toxic stress and strengthening family bonds. We’ll have a much better chance of breaking the cycles of substance abuse, child neglect and domestic violence that haunt families for generations. We’ll have a much better chance of decreasing confrontations with law enforcement and entanglement in the child welfare system.
These kind of mental health-focused intervention programs are a good, early step that will benefit our whole community. But they alone won’t solve all the problems generated by Palm Beach County’s unmet mental health needs. That will take even more discussion and debate. We look forward to continuing the conversation.
CEO, Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County
Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County provides leadership, funding, services and research on behalf of the county’s children so they grow up healthy, safe and strong. To learn more, please contact Shana Cooper, Children’s Services Council’s Public Information Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-740-7000 ext. 2170. Visit us at www.cscpbc.org.