Report of healthy development: A summit on young children's mental health

Summary

The impact of child mental health on child development and society as a whole is well documented but under recognized.

The public has limited awareness of how mental health affects child development and societal wellbeing in general, how important mental health needs can and should be met, and the scientific basis for promoting mental health and preventing and treating disorders.

In the last decade, improving public recognition and understanding has been highlighted in several key reviews, including the Surgeon General’s Action Agenda for Children’s Mental Health (U.S. Public Health Service, 2000), the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health’s Achieving the Promise: Transforming Mental Health Care in America (2007), and the agenda of most professional disciplines concerned with children’s mental health.

In each case, the essential step in advancing recognition and providing due support for efforts that can improve the state of child mental health in this country is to link sound scientific information with readily comprehensible public “messages.”

The Summit was convened for that purpose. With support from over 20 organizations, 42 individuals representing diverse stakeholders with rich and extensive knowledge about child mental health gathered with communication scientists to review and prioritize available scientific information.

The Summit participants shared a common interest in improving public comprehension of the substantial scientific knowledge about children’s mental health, the actions and practices that can reliably promote child mental health, and the critical role that mental health plays in lifelong and overall societal functioning.

Executive Summary

Summit participants worked in small groups focused on four major areas of children’s mental health. Within each area participants identified empirically supported findings about children’s mental health and the most critical and useful ideas to improve public understanding. 

The Importance of Mental Health for Normal Child Development

  • Providing support for children’s optimal social and emotional development results in positive outcomes for individuals and society, including healthier behavior, greater school success, improved relationships, and economic savings.

  • Available, responsive, stable caregivers are critical for children’s optimal mental health, and these relationships influence brain development from birth. These caregivers need to receive support.

  • Families, parents, caregivers, teachers, and others who care for and work with children need to be better informed about milestones of normal, healthy child development to both reassure caregivers when development proceeds within typical limits and to identify early warning signs that indicate when assistance is necessary.

  • Children and families can be prepared for stress points and transitions. They can learn the skills to be resilient in periods of stress and challenge, thus protecting and promoting mental health.

  • Skills and competencies that improve developmental outcomes can be taught to children, parents, and caregivers.

  • Predictable routines at home, in child care settings, and at school are essential for child mental health.

  • Outcome disparities based on race/ethnicity, urban versus rural environments, and socioeconomic status must be addressed. Those most in need or at highest risk are least likely to have access to the highest quality interventions.

Everyday Challenges for Parents

  • Families can be strengthened and parents can increase their skills through interventions designed to promote children’s mental health.

  • Decreasing poverty will increase resources to promote children’s mental health.

  • One-stop facilities that provide integrated health care and human services enable parents to meet their children’s needs, which include safety, education, health, and happiness.

  • Fragmentation of services prevents or inhibits parents from meeting their children’s needs. Enriching community- and family-based social supports and reducing social isolation and marginalization enables families, schools, and community agencies to improve child mental health and produce healthy, socialized, and responsible citizens.

  • For families that have children with a diagnosed mental illness, coordinated systems of care can effectively decrease the severity of children’s mental health symptoms.

  • Positive and effective communication, active listening, welcoming engagement, and trusting partnerships between families and schools are essential to promote children’s mental health in the community.

Prevention Opportunities in Child Mental Health

  • Prevention strategies can address multiple risk factors and have been shown to reduce mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders in childhood and lead to healthy developmental outcomes.

  • Healthy prenatal choices, e.g., refraining from smoking, alcohol, or drug use, and avoiding unintentional toxic exposure, protect the developing brain and are critical for child mental health.

  • Organized community-wide assessment, planning, and action using evidence-based approaches can reduce the prevalence of childhood mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

  • A consistent prevention message across diverse settings, e.g. health care, child care, youth-serving organizations, achieves results that are more powerful.

  • Promoting social and emotional learning in school programs leads to success in school and life and prevents mental health problems.

  • Early physical and emotional abuse is toxic to children and can be prevented.

  • Child care should be affordable, of consistently high quality, and valued. 

Effective Treatment for Childhood Mental Health Problems

  • Children can and do develop problematic mental conditions, both chronic and transitory.

  • Both diagnosis and treatment should be developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive. The field needs, and families deserve, measurable outcomes based on treatment goals collaboratively defined by families and providers.

  • Evidence-based practice exists for many but not all conditions, and these treatments can help children reach their potential and reduce misery among families. These treatments help children succeed at home and in school, help them stay out of trouble, and also improve relationships that affect the child.

  • Similar to the obstacles they encounter in the health care system, children and families face many barriers to receiving evidence-based treatments for children’s mental disorders. These barriers include a lack of trained providers, lack of core public financing, limited private insurance coverage, and stigma.

  • More research is needed to develop effective, developmentally appropriate, and culturally responsive treatments and to bring them from the development stage to actual delivery. Research can guide the tailoring of interventions to the particular needs of children and families.

These key statements will be the basis for communication science studies of the public’s beliefs about child mental health. Then, the vital agenda becomes the assessment of the public’s receptivity of various frames for what the science says. This includes assessing available public support for investing in child mental health.

Both the work of the Summit and the resulting priority statements are intended to serve as the basis for effective collaboration and shared communication across diverse groups and messengers in order to develop a message for the public about the importance of child mental health for healthy development.