Re-envisioning family focused care and mental well-being

Mental health is central to health and well-being. On a positive note, the pandemic has created opportunities for mental well-being conversations and perhaps mental well-being is even less stigmatized.

Mental health support systems such as school-based curriculums, community-based organizations and conversations with other parents or caregivers are focusing on prevention to support children’s emotional health.  Parents and caregivers are one of the key cornerstones for influencing children’s emotional and mental well-being. Multi-generational models or family focused care provides supports for parents and caregivers who provide the grounding for their children.

Harvard University Center on the Developing Child lists the following ways to support mental well-being since the one-year milestone of the coronavirus pandemic.

1. Integrate flexible models of care such as telehealth, multidisciplinary teams and partnerships. Evidence shows effective mental well-being care is not only in working with necessary specialists like psychologists and psychiatrists, rather, partnering with more community-based organizations like schools and law enforcement. Many children and adults are unlikely to have long-term diagnosable mental health disorders. The current levels of mental distress are likely to improve exponentially, provided a consistent sense of grounding can be created. People’s primal assumptions regarding safety and predictability of the world are likely affected.

The pandemic has reshaped our world views, including our sense of trust in others, in larger systems, and ourselves. Engaging people in thinking about social and emotional well-being is a step toward relational trust. This is precisely why it’s essential to lean in on community supports so a more connected, compassionate, and equitable society may increase. 

2. Centering health equity in all areas of future planning and implementations is vital. In an episode of “The Brain Architects,” Dr. Archana Basu and Dr. Karestan Koenen remind us, “the pandemic has made clear that while we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. The impact of systemic inequalities in the U.S. has long since been established, reiterated, and exacerbated in the pandemic.”

Scientific evidence shows that many of the chronic health conditions associated with increased risk of more serious illness and death from COVID-19 such as obesity, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes are associated with excessive adversity, beginning in the prenatal period and the first 2-3 years after birth.  Early childhood policy needs to be rethought to level the playing field for all children to create a foundation of both lifelong health and readiness to succeed in school.

A key lesson from the pandemic is the need for more family-friendly policies that advocate beyond a one-time effort. For example, the Rescue Act provides economic stimulus for families with children, including an extension of Medicare for one-year postpartum for mothers.

3. Prevention of mental well-being concerns is a major area for growth. Research shows at least half of lifetime mental disorders begin in childhood, and approximately 75 percent are diagnosed before age 25. This points to the need for much more investment in childhood mental well-being, research and health care access, especially in the sensitive periods of development in the pregnancy through age three period. It also means we need to support those who most closely care for our children and their emotional development such as parents, early childhood providers, and educators. Resilience is a trait developed through experiencing responsiveness. For instance, when children are coping with stress or feeling overwhelmed, having a reliable caregiver’s support makes the stressor tolerable, as children learn how to cope and adapt. Resiliency is cultivated by an openness toward intentional, self-care such as reaching out and connecting with friends, loved ones, and medical and mental health professionals for support.  Being flexible and modeling flexibility for children teaches the importance of learning to change with life’s changes. This often leads to re-evaluating priorities and keeping these priorities simple for family and self. 

4. Rethink and re-envisioning the training and education in mental health fields such as psychiatry, psychology, social work as well as all medical specialties, and school-based roles. For instance, exploring various models like Mental Health First Aid where community health workers or leaders in the community can receive training in mental health practices that can be dispersed into the community. Training that builds on intergenerational, systemic, and life-course approaches in the science of early childhood development, trauma, and resilience.

5. Family support systems can increase mental well-being by: 

• Focusing on what children and families can control. For example: managing simple routines like sleep, eating, exercise, and creatively maintaining social connections. 

• Children are most concerned about what directly affects them while adults are most often concerned about issues in a more abstract manner. Provide open age-appropriate communication to assist children in understanding what is being observed and experienced. This may help children feel that parents and caregivers care about the children’s issues.

• Coach children in recognizing what they are feeling, validate those emotions. This may assure them they are understood, connected and belong with others in the experience. Acknowledge and respond toward children’s concerns in as much of a concrete way as possible. For example, the friends your children typically have playdates or birthday parties with can’t have them in the typical manner as before yet may be able to creatively think of a way to still connect with them. 

“The new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. IF only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Amanda Gorman 2021 Inaugural Poem

For more information increasing mental well-being go to: Harvard University Center on the Developing Child:  www.developingchild.harvard.edu/.

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Sandy Block-Hansen is the Family Footprints coordinator at CHI St. Francis Health, a Catholic Health Initiative Mission and Ministry program created to support, inform and offer resources to parents in the role of parenting. She can be reached at sandrablock-hansen@catholichealth.net or 218-643-0475

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