In recognition of May as National Mental Health Awareness Month, President Obama made a proclamation that included this statement
My Administration is also investing in programs that promote mental health among young people.
While he went on to speak of working with teachers and students, my hope is that Obama will recognize that prevention starts with parents and babies. A social and cultural valuing of parents, as occurs in countries like Australia and Finland, is the path to a truly preventive model.
A recent issue of the journal Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care identifies the following:
The presence of parental psychological problems, such as depression or anxiety, can lead to prolonged periods of disorganized parent-infant social interaction, compromising long-term infant outcomes. A wealth of studies has shown that maternal depression is a strong predictor of infants’ social, emotional, and cognitive problems throughout the lifespan.
Representative Ellen Story and her Postpartum Depression Commission have recognized this fact. While the initial focus of the group had been on screening for postpartum depression, it has expanded to focus on the emotional well being of parents during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. This includes supporting of strong, healthy parent-child relationships.
One of the initiatives is a new program MCPAP for Moms. The aim of the program is to provide statewide support for pediatricians, obstetricians and other clinicians who have the opportunity to identify and treat new parents who may be struggling with a range of perinatal emotional complications. MCPAP for Moms is partnering with the wonderful organization, MotherWoman, to integrate the community based perinatal support model, as well as the important and valuable program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, the MSPP Interface Referral Service, that connects people in need of help with appropriate care.
D.W.Winnicott observed in his work as a pediatrician and psychoanalyst what he termed the “ordinary devoted mother.” In the early weeks and months, when the infant is completely helpless, he relies on this devotion. When his caregivers are present in this way, development proceeds in a healthy direction. But when a parent is, in the words of Winnicott’s biographer Adam Phillips, “preoccupied by something else,” in the face of such things as social isolation, depression, anxiety or even PTSD, containing the helpless baby can be very difficult. Add a fussy baby to the mix, and this is where development can first get off track.
I am happy to be part of the MCPAP for Moms initiative because its leaders recognize the need to the focus is on the relationship. It is not only about treating the mother, but also bringing in the baby- identifying stressed early relationships and finding ways to support those relationships.
The baby is an active participant from the start. Crying, sleep and feeding problems often affect the emotional well being of new parents. The baby’s mood can affect the parents, and the parents’ mood can affect the baby. Parent and baby can interact in a way that causes worsening of each other’s distress. This is the point at which help is needed- for the parent, for the baby, for the relationship.
By valuing the role of parents, and investing resources in the early weeks, months, and years when the baby’s brain is most rapidly developing, we will be engaging in promotion of mental health and primary prevention of mental illness.