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Why Infant Mental Health Matters: Intern Reflects on Her Experiences in the Field

Kierra Gray started her placement as an Early Childhood and Family Services Intern at Development Centers in January 2020. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, she reflects on why Infant Mental Health Services are so critical for early childhood development.

Early Childhood and Family Services Intern, Kierra Gray.

Why Infant Mental Health Matters

By Kierra Gray

In 1949, May became Mental Health Awareness Month. During this month, May 7th focuses on the needs of children’s mental health. As a student intern at Development Centers Inc., I’m learning and practicing Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH or IMH). I began this placement in January 2020 during my second semester in my social work graduate program. When I talk to my family and friends about my field placement, they tend to chuckle and ask, “Why do babies need a therapist?” Judgments like this prove that there is still a strong stigma around mental health care and ageism toward children. Honestly, that was my first thought when I was placed here for an interview by my scholar’s program, but DCI quickly and humbly proved to me that babies do indeed deserve the same mental health care as anyone else. While shadowing my field supervisor and learning from the IMH team, I witnessed the benefits in person. Observing the IMH clinicians work diligently with their clients and watching their relationships, and positive attachments grow added another layer of admiration. While I understood children’s mental health care logically, I didn’t know this service could start so young, especially at a day old. The parents could face trauma before the child’s birth, consequently causing harm to the unborn that could linger as they grow.

I’ve always been a strong advocate for mental wellness, a factor for applying to my alma mater, the University of Michigan, for social work. With my focus on interpersonal practice and mental health, I envisioned my plans working with women and children on their mental well-being without knowing that the niche sector of IMH existed. I advocate for mothers, other women, and mental health services through my personal platform while also serving as chair of M-Parent, a committee focusing on the needs of student parents, within the social work Student Union. Through my exposure to these forms of advocacy and mental health, I still didn’t know about IMH. Lack of knowledge about this essential mental health niche is a disservice to those who could benefit from IMH services or provide resources to others in need.

As a mother to a 3-year-old daughter, I work to instill healthy coping strategies and talk to her about her feelings as early as possible. It’s frustrating that society still doesn’t value the voice of children and prefer to see them as silent and compliant instead of strong-minded individuals with a powerful voice we need to hear. IMH services provide a voice to the voiceless. This niche, preventative discipline, centers infants and children ages 0 to 6-years-old focusing on healthy attachment and coping skills. It’s crucial to concentrate on this age group because this vulnerable population cannot advocate for themselves effectively. Hence, IMH provides the space to support and focus on the world’s most susceptible people.

This population may experience trauma, but we would never adequately know. IMH helps reduce stressors to build resiliency with the child’s caregiver. Teaching coping skills to develop this resilience correlates to being less likely to experience trauma on a grand scale as an extension of childhood trauma. IMH helps break the intergenerational trauma cycle. Trauma from early childhood within IMH could be the sudden loss of a parent, a painful medical procedure, sexual or child physical abuse, domestic violence, natural disaster, accidents, or war. IMH provides the safe space and coping skills necessary to heal from the beginning with their caregivers onward.

As a Black woman clinician, I aspire to spread awareness about IMH so others will learn about children’s mental health. I’m excited that as a whole, mental health is at the forefront of many people’s minds due to social media and sites like Therapy for Black Girls, but there is still a lot of progress to make. We can address the toxic traits and generational trauma that parents don’t want to pass down to their children at the beginning instead of when it becomes more serious later in life. Healthy children’s mental health reshapes the physical, social, and emotional well being of a child. Let’s work as a community to take care of our children holistically.