Early Head Start (EHS) provides mental health services to young children and their families. Recently, in conjunction with the Graduate School of Public Health (Maternal Child Health) principle investigator Tammy Thomas, EHS surveyed mothers about their most current mental health needs. This information was integrated into the existing mental health services provided for families. The investigators presented these results and their model of service at the MARCE conference held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 28, 2010.
Understanding the Role of Mental Health in Early Head Start Services:
Impacts on families, children, and home visitors
Early Head Start (EHS) delivers home-based services to enhance the emotional and social development of children between the ages of 0 and 3. When a mother is pregnant, she and her family can enroll in the program in order to prepare for the birth of her infant.
EHS serves predominantly high-risk families, many of whom are dealing with mental health issues. The program has recently worked to examine families’ mental health needs and their impact on home visitors’ efforts to enhance child and family well-being.
Many of the EHS-served families with mental health issues are receiving or have received services from mental health providers. Because the mental health consultants working with the EHS program are not equipped to treat severe mental health cases, parents with mental health diagnoses are often referred to mental health agencies.
The mothers surveyed in this study often commented on a lack of available immediate mental health services: when families in crisis are faced with long waiting lists, they can become frustrated and feel discouraged from seeking treatment. As a result, many do not seek treatment at all. In other cases, families are reluctant to discuss mental health issues due to social stigmas about mental health.
Families do not often bring up mental health issues until they have built a relationship with their EHS home visitor. As a result, home visitors work on getting to know families and building trust before discussing mental health. When they do begin to talk about mental health concerns, they relate these concerns to children and child development.
Mental health issues can translate into the caretaking of children in several ways. As mothers deal with their own concerns, emotions, and struggles related to mental health, they may find it more difficult to attend to their children’s needs. Some mothers in this situation do not choose to utilize services intended to support children, further isolating their children from attention and care. When children experience this kind of isolation and neglect, they often do less well than their peers in areas of behavioral, cognitive, and speech development. EHS home visitors described seeing some children who exhibit no affect, including those who show little response to the mother. Many home visitors shared that some of the babies replicate the affect of their mothers.
In some cases, mothers are seeking treatment and are working to make positive changes in their lives. In these situations, there are often positive bonds between mothers and their children. EHS works with these mothers to help their children achieve developmental milestones.
In order to improve mental health support for parents and their children, EHS and the mental health system need to strengthen their collaborative mental health efforts. EHS home visitors desire increased education and training in mental health in order to provide quality service to EHS families.
for more information on services provided by EHS.