The Mental Health Center of Denver was recently awarded a 5-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to expand infant and early childhood mental health services throughout Colorado with a new initiative, Right Start for Colorado.
“Young infants and toddlers are frequently overlooked in mental health policy and healthcare delivery systems,” said Dr. Shannon Bekman, Director of Right Start for Colorado.
About Right Start for Colorado
To remedy this, $22 million was designated to create grants that support infant and early childhood mental health services at the community level. The Mental Health Center of Denver was one of nine organizations across the nation to receive a grant of $2.5 million with specific goals to:
- Increase the access to, and quality of, infant and early childhood mental health services
- Build a statewide workforce capacity for individuals serving children ages birth to 5 years
“Our goal is to create alignment among all different sectors and organizations working on behalf of infants and young children and provide some game-changing work that advances the infant mental health landscape in Colorado,” Dr. Bekman said. “We want to promote transformation in our workforce that can sustain itself once grant funding has ended.”
Building a Statewide Workforce
To help build a statewide infant and early childhood mental health workforce, Right Start for Colorado will offer trainings to clinicians across the state on several evidence-based clinical treatments specific to very young children.
“And that’s only half the equation,” Dr. Bekman said. “We also plan to engage our allied providers who frequently work with young children, such as pediatricians, child welfare workers, first responders, home visitors and other community partners, with the goal of supporting those professionals to have an infant mental health lens.”
For example, we want the child welfare worker to know when and how to refer the infant on their caseload who is grieving the loss of his/her parent. We want the first responder who responds to a domestic violence call to hold the toddler in mind when arresting a parent. It is often thought that because of their young age, infants and toddlers are unaware of, or will not remember, these very scary experiences, and we know that not to be true.
Expanding Access to Services
In addition to the statewide workforce development, the grant has allowed the organization to expand its Right Start for Infant Mental Health team, which is managed by Dr. Michelle Roy. Dr. Roy has been able to grow her team to offer higher-intensity, home-based infant mental health services for families residing in Denver County.
Right Start for Infant Mental Health is a treatment program at Dahlia Campus for Health & Well-Being for children ages birth to five and their caregivers. The program was started in 2010 and has been expanding ever since. It offers clinical services when very young children are experiencing mental health challenges. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers can and do experience mental health issues including depression, anxiety, PTSD and other disorders. These may arise when a young child has experienced the loss of a primary caregiver (whether that be through death, incarceration, deportation or foster care placement) or other adverse experiences such as abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence or other traumatic experiences.
Infant mental health takes a 2-generation approach. Treating the infant and caregiver together can heal and stop the intergenerational transmission of trauma.
“There’s a saying in infant mental health that ‘earlier is easier,’” Dr. Bekman said. “The earlier intervention occurs, the better the long-term prognosis.”