What is Utah doing to address early childhood mental health?

Utah leaders and mental health professionals met online Wednesday to outline policy recommendations for early childhood mental health as rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicide among youth continue to rise statewide. (Children’s Center)

Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah leaders and mental health professionals are outlining policy recommendations for early childhood mental health as rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicide among youth continue to rise statewide.

The group gathered on Wednesday during the activities of the second edition of the Ready! flexible! Utah Childhood Mental Health Summit. Last year’s summit established a working group of leaders across sectors and stakeholders in early childhood mental health. A year later, staff and subject matter experts came together to understand, prioritize, and propose solutions to the problems previously identified in a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Rebecca C. Dotson, president and CEO of the Children’s Center said. “Moreover, the unprecedented global pandemic, soon to enter its third year, with unimaginable long-term mental health consequences for children and their caregivers as we speak.”

In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency regarding the mental health of children and adolescents. The announcement noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the mental health crisis and noted the “dramatic increase in emergency department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts.”

Last week, the US Surgeon General issued similar advice on protecting the mental health of young adults. Dotson said that from 2007 to 2018, teen suicide increased by 57% among youth ages 10 to 24.

Utah’s national crisis has been amplified, with the state ranked among the group with the highest prevalence of mental health disorders in children and adolescents. Governor Spencer Cox said at the summit that the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified a crisis that has already been around for a long time.

“While the need to better understand and address Utah’s mental needs has been around for a long time, its importance as an issue has really increased over the past 18 months as a result of COVID-19,” Cox said. “This pandemic has had a negative impact on the emotional well-being of both children and caregivers. Understanding the high costs associated with failing to address this problem – we really need a clear path forward for our case.”

The depth and impact of an early childhood mental health intervention has been explained by experts in the field. Brenda Jones, director of the Early Adversity and Prevention Research Laboratory at the University of Maryland, explained the devastating effects that childhood mental health can have on children and their future outcomes.

“We see disparities in socioeconomic status in terms of birth outcomes, developmental outcomes, and mental health outcomes; but we also see these disparities in terms of service delivery,” Harden said.

“What kinds of child care support do they get? What kind of educational support do they get? What kinds of health and mental support do they get? We have issues with how they start their lives, but we also have issues in terms of how we respond to their experiences.”

The questions that Harden posed are the cornerstone of the policy recommendations made and discussed by the group.

Samantha Paul and Laura Summers of the Kim C. Gardner Institute for Policy at the University of Utah presented eight strategies for addressing early childhood mental health. Strategies include what the group calls “upstream” and “downstream” approaches: addressing early childhood mental health from pregnancy, postpartum maternity, and throughout the child’s early years.

The eight strategies include:

  • Establish a baseline assessment of the need for early childhood mental health services.
  • Collaborate and coordinate with a wide range of partners to support early childhood mental health through education, resources, early childhood care providers and support providers.
  • Raising awareness of early childhood mental health, and activities related to promotion and prevention, all of which can really help in reducing mental health stigma.
  • Increasing the integration of children’s physical and behavioral health by expanding access to mental health screenings, assessments and treatment for Medicaid and for all children, including in school settings.
  • Create incentives to help develop and retain a strong childhood mental health workforce.
  • Develop and provide early childhood mental health training to all early childhood caregivers and providers. This is different from the previous strategy in that it focuses on non-mental health providers.
  • Estimating the long-term value of early childhood mental health in Utah.
  • Reducing disparities in access to early childhood mental health and its outcomes for different population groups.

Cox said that several policies have been implemented or budgeted to address the strategies presented by the Kim C. Gardner Policy Institute. Cox’s administration is investing in a full-day kindergarten with flexibility for teachers to meet student needs through at-risk funding, he said, ensuring that all Utah children have access to health insurance and addressing disparities in health care access.

Among the policies and approaches is the integration of the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

“We have a real opportunity to take advantage of prevention and develop prevention systems very early on. We don’t want families in our defense services. We really want to make sure that we use our resources upstream rather than downstream. And by bringing these programs together in this new department, we hope and trust that we will be able to develop this prevention system while addressing the paper-based health needs of families and young children,” Tracy Gruber, the new executive director of the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

Additional attempts to increase access can be seen with the January launch of the Childen Center for Communications Services, an initiative funded through the governor. Services will include early childhood providers across sectors across the state and will include training, case counseling and other services.

“Going forward, we need to focus more on providing fair and equitable access to mental health services for all young children, including those whose communities are experiencing unequal health outcomes and those who live in rural communities. I want you to know that I see these issues,” Cox said. .

A sentiment carried by First Lady Abby Cox, who, like the governor, noted her struggle with mental health during the summit.

“We are now beginning to understand the gaps that we have in our understanding of how our mental health relates to our overall health and the health of our population in the future, through amazing people like you,” said Abby Cox. “Nothing is more important to me and to the governor than the condition of the children of this state.”

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