Local view: Childhood mental health begins at birth

The News Tribune and Fox 21 News series on childhood mental health, including news about Miller-Dwan's plans for a new youth treatment facility, was fantastic ("Losing Our Children," Nov. 25-28).

The News Tribune and Fox 21 News series on childhood mental health, including news about Miller-Dwan's plans for a new youth treatment facility, was fantastic ("Losing Our Children," Nov. 25-28).

Children, youth and families have been a Northland Foundation priority for nearly 25 years, so it was gratifying to see this vitally important topic receive more attention.

But there is more to the story.

Mental health doesn't begin at age 8 or 10, or even 5. It begins at birth.

What is "infant and early childhood mental health"? It is simply children's growing ability to experience and regulate emotions, form secure relationships, and explore the world around them. Research shows our lifelong social-emotional foundation is being formed in the first years of life. It may be a sturdy foundation, or it may be shaky and need extra support.


Every day, babies and young children are learning about their world. They learn as they are fed, talked to, played with and cuddled. With consistent, loving care, children experience the world as a safe place to explore. Their brains are able to develop in ways that lead to good social-emotional health.

For some young children, though, the world seems unpredictable. Those whose social-emotional development is hindered are less likely to do well in the first years of school, triggering increased risk of problems later on -- problems that affect them, their families, and all of society.

The sooner families with very young children who show signs of behavioral or emotional problems find proper resources and services the better. All too often, though, Minnesota families from outside the Twin Cities have not known how to get the help they need.

In 2006, the Northland Foundation launched an infant and early childhood mental health pilot program, the Minnesota Thrive Initiative, with the five other Minnesota initiative foundations, community members and statewide partners such as the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the University of Minnesota, and other foundations.

Thrive's main goal is to strengthen local support networks to ensure the social and emotional well being of young children ages 0-5, with special emphasis on ages 0-3.

Led by the Northland Foundation, the Duluth-Proctor-Hermantown Thrive Action Team, or DHP Thrive, became one of six Minnesota pilot sites working on the local level with support from statewide partners.

Community response was amazing! Early care and education, social services, mental health, medical, higher education, and many other sectors joined to move Thrive forward and take action. Never before had such a diverse group of people and professions been able to exchange information and ideas about infant and early childhood mental health in an intentional way.

"This is a new way of doing business. We are building bridges between the medical, mental health, and early care and education communities," said Dr. Heather Winesett, a Duluth pediatrician and a DHP Thrive member.


In three years, Thrive has accomplished much. Hundreds of Minnesotans have designed and implemented scores of projects. Among numerous DHP Thrive initiatives, Reflective Practice is now established in eight early-care and education sites, and social-emotional development is being introduced into the early childhood teaching curriculum at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Participants have helped educate themselves and the public while linking professionals from across many disciplines to improve resources and services.

There is more to be done. The need remains to ensure that all Minnesota families may access infant and early-childhood mental health information, resources and services.

"Thrive is building from the ground up and has made wonderful beginnings," said retired Duluth social worker and local Thrive member Voula Heffernan. "But we need the support of our community to help the work along. Now is when we can make a difference."

Lynn Haglin is vice president and KIDS PLUS director for the Northland Foundation, Molly Minkkinen is an associate professor for the University of Minnesota Duluth and is an action team member of DPH Thrive. And Marilyn Larson is supervisor of early childhood programs for Duluth public schools.

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