Most experts agree that birth to five years of age is a critical time in brain development and the formation of healthy attachments at this young age lay the foundation for a person’s health and well-being well into adulthood.
But despite the consensus that birth to five years is a crucial time for development, there is a pervasive – and false – belief that infants and young children cannot develop mental health issues. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses (DSM-5), which is considered the gold standard for mental health diagnosis, with rare exception does not include diagnostic information for children younger than five years. The mental health of this vital population has been largely overlooked, even in graduate curricula for clinical social workers, psychologists, counselors and other clinicians who specialize in treating children.
For the past four and a half years, WellPower’s Right Start for Colorado initiative has served as a statewide training hub and has bridged the education gap about the mental health of children from birth to five years. The program has worked to build a strong, competent infant and early childhood mental health workforce by providing low or no cost trainings statewide. To date, more than 1500 clinicians and allied professionals have attended trainings through Right Start for Colorado. This includes mental health professionals, early childhood educators, pediatricians, home visitors, child welfare professionals, court appointed special advocates, guardians ad litem and others. Right Start has also trained 50 clinicians in the evidence-based trauma treatment Child Parent Psychotherapy which treats post-traumatic stress and other mental health symptoms in children ages 0-5 and their caregivers. Additionally, they have trained 156 providers to be certified facilitators of Circle of Security-Parenting, a reflective parenting program that transmits the fundamentals of attachment theory to parents and caregivers.
WellPower’s Shannon Bekman, PhD, leads Right Start for Colorado and is a national mental health expert on infants and young children. She asserts emphatically, “Infants and young children have mental health, and it can be compromised. They can grieve, experience stress and trauma and most certainly can develop mental health issues that can undermine their ability to grow into healthy youth and adults.”
Ironically, as Right Start for Colorado is at risk of ending, more evidence is coming to light that supports the need to better diagnose and support infant and toddler mental health. Dr. Bekman authored a recently released journal article titled “Holding multiple perspectives: A toddler’s journey with traumatic grief in the child welfare system” and a chapter in the soon to be released DC: 0-5 Casebook; the DC:0-5 is the infant and young child diagnostic parallel of the DSM-5. Dr. Bekman writes about complicated grief disorder in a toddler in the foster care system.
Right Start for Colorado is in year four of a five-year grant from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). But Right Start for Colorado’s future is uncertain. The clock is ticking and thus far, funding to ensure the program’s future in Colorado after WellPower’s SAMHSA grant ends has not been secured. Colorado has two newly formed statewide offices that respectively fund behavioral health and early childhood, the Behavioral Health Administration (BHA) and Colorado Department of Early Childhood (CDEC), but neither organization has specified any grants specifically for this population and both agencies are under intense pressure, with BHA working to overhaul mental health care in the state and CDEC working to implement universal preschool.
As the future of Right Start for Colorado hangs in the balance, Dr. Bekman and team are focusing on providing sought after infant mental health trainings to our behavioral health workforce with the time remaining. They are applying for grants, but concerned this vital program will “fall through the cracks,” just as many of the young children it aims to help so often do.
For more information on the program and upcoming trainings, visit: