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An estimated 109,000 children and youth, birth to age 21, in Minnesota need treatment for serious emotional disturbances. In some cases, without intervention as an infant, when the child is 2 years old they may have trouble connecting with parents and peers. Web image

Mental health care impacts even the very young child

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Mental health care impacts even the very young child
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

It’s a safe bet that the mental image most people have of mental illness doesn’t include a third-grader or a baby.   But identifying and treating mental illness in the very young child is a growing need that’s being met in west central Minnesota by public and private agencies.

Kids needing mental health care services “are getting younger,” said Corinne Torkelson, Kandiyohi County Family Services supervisor.

Whether that’s because “kids are struggling more than they used to” or whether schools and medical doctors are doing a better job of identifying children and families with mental health issues, Torkelson said it’s “probably a combination of both.”

It’s an issue that’s difficult to grasp on several levels.

“The whole stigma is obviously out there,” said Torkelson. “It’s difficult for a parent to say, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong’ … ‘I must be a bad parent because my child is having these struggles.’”

But Torkelson said the message parents need to hear is that it’s “OK to ask for help because the earlier you can do that, the better for the child and your family.”

Funded primarily through state grants, it’s hoped that early intervention will prevent future crisis.

“You can pay now or pay later, and when you pay later it’s usually a higher cost,” said Torkelson.

After years of cuts to intervention programs, she said the “pendulum is swinging a little more” to providing funds and programs for children.

Evolution of care

In the history of mental health care, most resources have been dedicated to adults.

“We didn’t do a very good job for very little kids,” said Rick Loseth, from PACT for Family Collaborative in Willmar.

But in the last decade there’s been an increasing focus on young children and infant mental health.

State grants two years ago allowed PACT to work with mental health care partners to start serving kids from birth to age 5.

In the evolution of that care the state has been helping professionals “get up to speed” to give them the necessary “in-depth background” for working with young children, said Loseth. “This is positive stuff we want to do for our kids.”

While it may be surprising for the general public to hear about the need for mental health care for young children, Loseth said it’s been no secret to those who work with families, like county public health workers, who are on the front-line of seeing needs during home visits to families.

Issues like a family history of mental illness and households filled with stress, physical and verbal violence, drug use, unemployment, poor nutrition and poverty can result in a disruption in an infant or toddler’s brain development that can lead to mental illness, he said.

“That infant is going to picking up some of those stressors,” said Loseth. “Babies will soak that up.”

While it’s important not to overreact and assume every hard-to-soothe infant is experiencing stress that could lead to developmental issues, Loseth said ignoring red flags can lead to larger issues.

Without intervention as an infant, when the child is 2 years old they may have trouble connecting with parents and peers. When they turn 4 their ability to regulate emotions could be out of synch and by the time they’re 10 the child may be acting out, withdrawing and not having typical social interactions.

Training is helping professionals, including family medical doctors, to learn how to recognize potential mental health factors in young children so early intervention can begin.

“Clearly the parent would have a significant role in that process,” said Loseth. “It’s important to engage the parents with direct strategies.”

Instead of hiding from this issue, Loseth said “this is stuff we want to talk about the minute kids are born.”

Lutheran Social Service

Sometimes there are no clear reasons why a young child may not be on the right developmental, emotional and social path.

Parents may “know something is not right but they don’t know what to do,” said Lisa deCathelineau, director of Lutheran Social Service in Willmar.

Intervention and therapy, like programs offered at LSS, can help get children and their families “on the right track,” she said.

Early intervention is “critical,” said deCathelineau.

A state grant is allowing LSS to provide some of that intervention.

deCathelineau is one of two clinicians that works with young children, including infants, and their families.

Sessions include assessments, including one in the LSS office, one in a pre-school setting and one where the child and parents are together. The assessments help determine the development of the child and the parent/child relationship.

The behavioral-based intervention methods that are used may not be a “quick fix in some cases” but many making a “good investment at an early time” can make a big difference in the child’s life that could avert larger problems in later years.

“There’s a lot of research that supports working with kids on a developmental model,” she said. “This is a very valid approach to working with children.”

A comprehensive blend of occupational therapy and parenting resources are used during intervention sessions, said deCathelineau.

“The beautiful part of this, is you help this child and this parent and you’ve helped the next generation,” said deCathelineau.

The state of children’s mental health

Emotional or mental health problems can develop at any age. Many children have mental health issues that can seriously affect aspects of their lives:

  • Studies estimate that mental health problems affect one in five young people at any given time.
  • Many children and youth experience emotional disorders, such as depression, anxiety and attention-deficit, conduct and eating disorders.
  • In Minnesota, 9 percent of school-age children and 5 percent of preschool children have a serious emotional disturbance, which is a mental health problem that has become longer lasting and interferes significantly with the child’s functioning at home and in school.
  • An estimated 109,000 children and youth, birth to age 21, in Minnesota need treatment for serious emotional disturbances.
  • Children and youth with a serious emotional disturbance experience risks related to reduced graduation rates, increased involvement with juvenile corrections and more substance abuse problems.

Source: Minnesota Department of Human Services

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750