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Infusing Infant and Maternal Mental Health Into Health Care Settings: Practice Makes Perfect?

Jennifer Harman, Melissa Buchholz, and Obianuju O. Berry

Abstract

Many hospitals and academic medical settings lag behind in promoting key initiatives focused on advancing maternal, infant, and early childhood mental health. Yet, systems are dynamic and change is possible. This article highlights Fellows’ efforts to infuse maternal, infant, and early childhood mental health understanding and approaches into medical settings. Ample opportunities exist to engage with families of young children in medical settings, in a culturally sensitive way, to meet their mental health and developmental needs.

Mental health providers are traditionally tasked with treating specific diagnoses, responding to concerns, and reacting to crises. There is less of a focus on intervening before problems exist and equipping families with tools and strategies to prepare them to support their child in reaching their optimal developmental potential. However, research has demonstrated the benefit of early identification and intervention for young children and the positive long-term impact these services have on children, families, and society as a whole (Buchholz, Burnett, Margolis, Millar, & Talmi, 2018; Heckman, 2011).

Medical settings provide an excellent opportunity to reach young children and their families early and often, thus increasing access to mental health care that is accessible. Infusing infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH) into medical settings is an important strategy to increase access to mental health care and to take a family-centered, multi-generational approach to supporting the health and well-being of young children and their families. Indeed, we believe that when clinical practitioners and policymakers leverage medical settings as essential partners, improved services for infants, toddlers, and their families are seen. What follows are examples of just that—various efforts to permeate medical settings, and policies and procedures relevant to young children seen in medical settings, with a pervasive IECMH lens.

The subsequent sections describe work done within academic medical settings on behalf of infants, toddlers, and families. As members of the 2018–2020 ZERO TO THREE Fellowship class, we spent a significant amount of time considering our role in supporting the infusion of maternal, infant, and early childhood mental health in various medical settings including opportunities for leadership and advocacy. Jennifer Harman describes efforts to better support infants and toddlers with cancer and their families, Melissa Buchholz discusses the expansion of HealthySteps in the state of Colorado, and Obianuju O. Berry explains collaboration between advocacy organizations and medical settings in response to intimate partner violence. Each section begins with background contextual information to help orient the reader.

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