Early Childhood Mental Health refers to a child’s developing capacity to express one’s emotions, develop close relationships and actively explore the world around them. 

“Defining what is early childhood mental health and its components helps us to center our work around the youngest of children in our community. “Mental health” means different things to different people and groups. Many do not think about the important aspect that the parent’s mental health plays in the development of the child,” Strnad said. 

Imagine what the average person wonders when they hear the words “early childhood mental health.” 

When a child gets a cold, we treat the child by providing extra fluids, rest, and at times a medication to provide symptom relief.  If a child experiences a chronic ailment, such as diabetes, we adjust the child’s diet, monitor blood sugar, and provide insulin as needed.  Yet too often,  when a child experiences an occurrence with their mental health, the symptoms, or behaviors, are ignored, with the hope that “it will work out or the child will outgrow it.”  Children’s development often focuses on their physical health, yet, our mental health creates the foundation for all future development.  We cannot see the child and not see their mental health.  Mental health is a part of overall health. 

This concept is the focus of a collaborative group that stemmed out of West Central Minnesota’s Early Childhood initiative.  The Early Childhood Mental Health group brings partnering organizations together to:  

  • Create programs that help parents and other caregivers to better understand typical child development and when to seek additional help. 
  • Build our local system of care for prevention, early intervention, and treatment.   
  • Provide general information to debunk the stigma that often prevents a family from seeking help with their mental health. 

What many don’t understand, Strnad continues, is that from a very young age, adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs, can dramatically change a child’s social-emotional makeup and capacity to handle what life hands them. This mental stress manifests itself in many different ways. 

“A lot of people, when they think of mental illness, think of a raging kid, but depression and anxiety can affect very young children too,” Strnad explains. In many cases, families have to figure out on their own how to deal with their child’s illness—even if the child has been diagnosed. 

That’s why one of the ECMH Network’s first projects is to develop a regional resource database of early childhood mental health services from prenatal to age eight. 

Another goal is to address the stigma associated with talking about mental health. “How do we talk about kids and their mental health needs? Too often, people say things like, ‘Oh, she’s just two’ or ‘That’s what all boys do,’ to explain a child’s behavior. As an early childhood group, we have a voice about our young children’s social-emotional development, and we can teach others how to have that conversation with families, child care, educators, medical professionals, media and others,” Strnad says. 

For information about the ECMH Network, email Carolyn Strnad at coordinator@claycountycollaborative. org.