Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics and national partners declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. This declaration focused on the profound growth of mental health hazards associated with the global pandemic, including disruptions in family stability, persistent adversity and related factors. While these factors can create serious problems that affect individual children and families, they also lead to fallout on a societal level as they continue to put growing pressure on our public health, social service and corrections systems.
Mental health hazards can be damaging at any stage in a child’s development, but are especially harmful in the first three years of life. During this time, children need experiences that foster healthy physical, social, cognitive and emotional growth. In particular, children benefit from warm, trusting, consistent relationships with family and caregivers, and safe, stable environments where they receive unconditional support, encouragement, acceptance and love. These factors foster growth in confidence and self-esteem, as well as the ability to form healthy attachments to others.
Children who learn to recognize and manage their emotions, acquire social skills and are able to cope with adversity or unexpected situations are on their way to happy, fulfilling lives. But when early development is derailed, especially in the first three years, children’s capacity to learn and relate to others can be negatively affected, with the resulting consequences felt across their lifespan.
Maternal depression and children’s mental health
Few factors are more important to foundations of mental health as the social, emotional and physiological well-being of mothers with very young children. Research indicates that maternal depression is particularly common in the United States, including Nebraska, but is frequently under-diagnosed. Prolonged depression can undermine the natural attachment between mothers and their youngest children—a crucially important protective factor that helps children regulate their response to stress.
Learning to deal with stress is an important part of healthy growth. Our bodies go on alert when we’re under stress, resulting in increased heart rate and stress hormone levels. When young children who are experiencing stress are comforted by supportive adults, they recover quickly and return to normal. This helps them build resiliency and the ability to cope with everyday setbacks.
But when children experience unrelenting stress, their development can be seriously impaired. Maternal depression is among the factors that can cause prolonged stress, significantly impacting babies’ healthy development. Studies show maternal depression is related to conflict between parents and family and overall lower family functioning.
In her guest blog post on maternal depression for FFN Dr. Ann Anderson Berry, faculty member of University of Nebraska Medical Center and medical director of the Nebraska Perinatal Quality Improvement Collaborative (NPQIC), said infants whose mothers have untreated depression are at risk for a number of issues, including breastfeeding cessation, developmental delays, decreased family well-being and attachment problems.
Later in childhood, these children are at risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder which is associated with lower school performance and behavior issues, Dr. Berry said.
Indications that older children are struggling include poor grades despite good effort, anxiety and avoiding school or normal activities. They may be aggressive or disobedient, have frequent temper tantrums or experience nightmares, sadness or irritability.
Ultimately, children facing these problems are at risk of dropping out of school, becoming involved in the criminal justice system and developing chronic health problems.
LB905 is a first step
Maternal depression screenings during the prenatal period and during a baby’s first year, as recommended in LB905. Passed by Nebraska state senators during this year’s legislative session, these screenings are a first step toward identifying mental health issues of expectant and new mothers and preventing long-term consequences for them and their children.