Volume XXI | Issue 1 | Spring 2021
A relationship with a caring individual provides the best chance for lowering the incidence of chronic mental illness in children.

A mental health network

Professionals come together to protect infants, toddlers

Authorities are typically called to intervene in family situations when safety is a factor and immediate action is required. Living conditions, drug abuse or neglect may put children at risk; domestic violence may be present or threatened. In Douglas County, this kind of intervention and help for families with young children is being expanded, based on a growing understanding about brain development of infants and toddlers. 

In short: When it comes to building healthy lives, the earlier you begin, the better. 

That’s the logic — and science — behind a collaborative effort taking root in Douglas County by a new, informal network of mental health services, with the help of a grant from The Ford Family Foundation. 

Shelter hotline calls have spiked during the pandemic.

“Living through hard times is not new,” says Angel Reeves, a program director at Compass Behavioral Health, Douglas County’s mental health agency and crisis team. “What is new is the level of evidence that living through those stressors is not good for the lifelong health of young people.” (See sidebar.)

The additional pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing some families to the breaking point, says Melanie Prummer, the director of Peace at Home in Roseburg, formerly known as the Battered Persons Advocacy. Oregon’s devastating wildfires also caused displacement and stress, she adds.

Shelter hotline calls have spiked during the pandemic, which is particularly alarming when national studies are showing that people are now less able to escape a bad home situation. The number of Peace at Home clients in 2019-2020 was 1,272, about 38% higher than the year before.

A shortage of people who specialize in infant and toddler mental health makes the situation worse.

Keys to success

To help build capacity, in 2018 The Ford Family Foundation began offering 12 scholarships to Douglas County professionals for an Infant Toddler Mental Health Graduate Certificate program at Portland State University. So far, the Foundation has funded 40 scholarships to rural Oregon professionals. The certificate is a 20-credit, online program designed for professionals who work with families with children age prenatal to 3 years old. A bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite. The program has strengthened the informal network of mental health professionals. 

Their focus: Address the issue of protecting and enhancing mental health for babies and toddlers. The key, Prummer says, is making sure parents and primary caregivers are able to provide the positive interaction and attention that young children need.

That means education, as well as reducing stressors for families. Preparation can start even before babies are born.  A family advocate working at Peace at Home serves at-risk pregnant women or women with young children, who are identified primarily though the healthcare system. The help includes crisis interventions, safety planning, birthing support and financial assistance. 

Alison Hinson runs the behavioral health program for 13 school districts through the Douglas Education Service District and also serves as the executive director of the Oregon Infant Mental Health Association. The Foundation is supporting the association’s development of statewide professional standards and credentials around infant mental health.

Hinson helps coordinate a collection of 12 multi-disciplinary professionals from Douglas County (including herself), who have completed the infant mental health certificate program at Portland State University. The group meets to reflect on their learnings, brainstorm and create a new ecosystem to improve  care for infants and toddlers.

 “The substance abuse, generational poverty and trauma have always been here,” Hinson says. “The big change collectively is being able to name it, and we have a better idea what to do about it.”

Often, kids show early signs they need help, she says. However, identifying at-risk children has become more difficult since the pandemic has limited face-to-face interaction. Online conversations are better than nothing, she says, but that’s a hard format — especially for children. 

Caring individuals

To help meet the need, Hinson opened a new Roseburg counseling clinic in 2020, known as Juniper Tree. Clients have included new moms with postpartum depression, victims of intimate partner violence and middle-income families navigating difficult times.

“The number-one thing research has found, to lower the chance of chronic mental illness or other self-care needs, is a caring individual, a relationship with a safe and nurturing care provider of some kind,” Hinson says. “That’s the answer.”

Hinson does see a mental health silver lining in the pandemic for some children. In many families, it has meant staying home and building more positive support for their children. 

“Many people are struggling, but adapting,” she said. “And yes, there is a subset of people who are more at risk, and we are trying to help as best as we can.” 

She sees hope in the collaborative effort of mental health professionals in Douglas County. “It’s one way we can make that help better,” she says.  

The science 

Toxic stress caused by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) affects brain development, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. ACEs are traumatic events that occur in childhood and can include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. Toxic stress from ACEs is linked to chronic health problems, mental illness and substance misuse in adulthood. However, ACEs can be prevented.

According to the CDC, reducing or preventing such risk factors lowers the prevalence of substance abuse, makes people more employable, and reduces the risk of chronic disease, from pulmonary disease to diabetes to asthma. n

Get a free copy of The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study at www.tfff.org/select-books/

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