91,000 Young Children in NC Face Mental Health Issues that Impact Development

The North Carolina Institute of Medicine (NCIOM) released new recommendations for state policies to strengthen the social-emotional and mental health foundation for the state’s young children August 9. Research shows that early experiences, from age 0 to 5, have a strong influence on a child’s developing brain, providing a time of great opportunity and vulnerability.

Young children’s social-emotional well-being, or mental health, affects how they relate to and interact with others, how they learn and how well they are able to manage their emotions. Children need developmentally appropriate relationships, environments and experiences during their earliest years to develop a foundation strong enough to support more advanced physical, cognitive, and social-emotional skills.

“An extensive body of scientific research has shown us that developing positive social-emotional and mental health in those early years – from 0 to 5 – is key not only to future success but simply to healthy development,” said Pam Silberman, president of the NCIOM. “Significant adversity in early childhood, including trauma, abuse, living with a parent with substance use disorder and being raised in persistent poverty, can, if left untreated, leave scars that literally last a lifetime. In North Carolina we have a strong tradition of investing in early childhood education but we must also focus on our children’s well-being in order to secure a strong future.”

Recommendations include:

  • Creating a coordinated, integrated system to meet the social-emotional and mental health needs of young children and their families: Leadership is needed to coordinate the activities of a number of state and local agencies working on early childhood issues. Data must be created and collected to effectively track and address young children’s social-emotional and mental health.
  • Promoting awareness and understanding of the importance of young children’s social-emotional and mental health: Communication tools should be used at the state level to raise awareness and focused education is needed for parents, caregivers and doctors. A web-based clearinghouse should be created with information on programs and services at the state and county level available to children and families with social-emotional and mental health needs.
  • Improving treatment to meet the social-emotional and mental health needs of young children and their families: Increasing the availability and quality of treatment for critical populations—pregnant women using alcohol or other harmful substances, women with prenatal or postpartum depression, young children with mental health needs and women and children who have experienced family violence—must be a focus. Efforts must also focus on coordinating health care for women and children as they transition between different providers, including OB/GYNs, primary care doctors and pediatricians.
  • Developing the professions that work most closely with young children, especially early educators and health care practitioners: Efforts must be made to ensure that professionals who work with young children have the understanding, knowledge, and skills to promote social-emotional and mental health. Barriers to expanding the clinical workforce must also be addressed.

National research shows that between 10-14 percent of children ages 0-5 have mental health problems severe enough that they have trouble functioning. In North Carolina, that equates to approximately 91,000 children. For preschoolers, the rates are doubled when the factors of poverty, maternal depression, substance abuse, domestic violence or foster care are added.

The primary factors impacting young children’s mental health development are parental mental health, genetics and their relationships with caregivers and environment. Programs, policies and services to impact these factors positively such as teaching young children social and emotional skills and providing evidence-based treatment for young children and their families, help promote young children’s social-emotional development.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) fosters several such programs.

“With the Horizons Perinatal Substance Abuse Program, Beacon Intimate Partner Violence program, and the Perinatal Mood Disorders Center, UNC is at the cutting edge of patient care, discovery, and learning along these lines,” said Dr. John Thorp, co-chair of the NCIOM task force and Deputy Director of the Center for Women’s Health Research at UNC.

“Small societal investments in improving the health and wellbeing of pregnant and postpartum women can break intergenerational cycles of poverty, illiteracy, chronic health problems, and substance abuse,” Thorp added.

This report was undertaken at the request of the N.C. General Assembly, and funding support was provided by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services through the North Carolina Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Read the full report here: http://www.nciom.org/publications/?early-childhood