Holding the Holders: Cultivating Reflective Spaces for the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Workforce During Multiple Pandemics
Ashley McCormick, The Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, Southgate, Michigan; Sheryl Goldberg, Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health, Southgate, Michigan; Harleen Hutchinson, The Journey Institute, Inc., Tamarac, Florida; Christine R. Hughes Pontier, Florida Association for Infant Mental Health, Riverview, Florida; Ashley Bowers and Lana Shklyar Nenide, Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health, Madison, Wisconsin; and José Silva, Colorado Association for Infant Mental Health, Denver, Colorado
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As the infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH)-informed workforce adapted to the unexpected and challenging events brought on by COVID-19, associations for infant mental health (AIMHs), whose primary role is to support the workforce, stepped up and offered what very few organizations could during the onset of the pandemic: opportunities for consistent, predictable, and reflective conversations with colleagues. As 2020 progressed and the epidemic of systemic racism in the United States was further revealed, AIMHs again stepped up and offered the workforce the ongoing support needed to authentically show up for Black and Brown babies and families with cultural humility and sensitivity.
A majority of the states in the United States have established or are in the process of establishing an association for infant mental health (AIMH). AIMHs pursue their mission of promoting optimal social–emotional development and relational health for babies and young children by building and supporting a reflective, skilled, culturally sensitive, and relationship-based infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH)-informed workforce. AIMHs understand and are responsive to the unique challenges that this workforce faces as they support babies and their families through promotion, prevention, or intervention/ treatment programs. These challenges are even more acute when families are facing chronic adversity. AIMHs know that when babies, young children, and families experience grief, pain, and weariness, the workforce can experience it, too, known as the parallel process. This sentiment has never been truer than during the COVID-19 pandemic. The workforce is challenged with holding their own stress, uncertainty, and health right alongside the families in their care.
Within a matter of weeks of the onset of COVID-19 in the US, AIMHs’ leadership recognized that the workforce needed additional support and quickly responded. AIMHs stepped up to support the IECMH-informed workforce, while the workforce held the incredible worries of vulnerable families. Although finding reprieve and solace seemed like a distant hope, AIMHs figured out ways to provide those for the workforce. Amidst unprecedented confusion, uncertainty, and fear, AIMHs offered places where the workforce could be seen, heard, and supported.
If facing the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t already challenging enough, in 2020 the US saw a large increase in racism and violence toward people of color. While racism has deep roots in this country’s formation and has always quietly had an impact on the lives of many of its citizens, the social, economic, and political climate of the last many months has exposed and normalized overt racism. Fear, anger, and worry are frequent companions, triggered by all that is and is not happening. COVID-19’s impact on Black, Indigenous, and people of color families has highlighted the ongoing effects of racial disparities in social determinants of health and the reality of systemic inequities. The IECMH-informed workforce not only face these challenges within their own lives, but they also bear witness to the struggles experienced by the families with whom they work.
The Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health (Alliance) and AIMHs in Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin each responded to the needs of their workforce by providing additional opportunities for engagement in reflective spaces. Although each of the opportunities created by these AIMHs were unique, they all shared the same goal: to hold the holders. These groups offered a sense of steadiness and calm amongst the uncertainty and a place for connection during an isolating time. The parallel process was evident across groups—both the feeling of connectedness and satisfaction, but also the depth of anguish and heaviness all participants have felt at times.
As of this writing, we look back on how things were before COVID-19 and realize that what lies ahead remains unknown. But Brené Brown, a social science researcher and author, reminds us of one thing that we know for sure, “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering” (2013, p. 8). AIMHs offer incredible connections for the IECMH-informed workforce, just as the workforce offers invaluable relationships to the babies and families they support.
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