One in every five children and adolescents has an identifiable mental health need. Yet many of them will never get help.

Today is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, an annual campaign to raise awareness about the importance of children’s mental health to their overall health and development. The theme of this year’s campaign is how children can demonstrate resilience and overcome the effects of trauma.

A growing body of research has proven that intense adverse experiences such as witnessing domestic violence, severe maternal depression, or physical abuse or neglect can cause traumatic stress in children. This stress – often referred to as “toxic stress” – can interfere with how children learn and affect how a child’s brain develops.  This is particularly alarming given that nearly half of all substantiated child abuse and neglect cases in Contra Costa County involve children up to age five.

Studies have shown that if untreated, toxic stress in children can lead to later problems in school and with future relationships and employment. It can even affect health as an adult, increasing risks for problems such as depression, drug abuse, and heart disease.

But the negative effects of toxic stress can be lessened or even prevented with the support of caring adults. A healthy parent-child relationship can serve as a buffer against issues like domestic violence. And intensive services provided to young children who have experienced trauma can improve developmental outcomes. That’s where early childhood mental health, or infant mental health, comes in.

Infant mental health is about promoting young children’s healthy social and emotional development. A lot of this work is accomplished by improving the relationship a child has with his or her parent or caregiver since the quality of this relationship influences how well a child develops.

Signs Your Child Might Need Mental Health Services

Children express emotional or behavioral problems in many different ways so it’s not always easy to know if your child may need mental health services. We Care Services for Children, an infant mental health provider in Concord, says to seek help for your child if you are concerned by any of the following:

  • Changes in appetite or sleep or other behaviors
  • Social withdrawal
  • Fearfulness, sadness or tearfulness
  • Frequent rule breaking or behavior problems at preschool or home
  • Aggression towards others
  • Threats to harm self
  • Rejecting or avoiding being touched or held
  • Inability to comfort or calm self
  • Not turning to familiar adults for comfort

Find Local Programs: 

First 5 Contra Costa funds several programs that provide early intervention and mental health support to reduce or prevent the effects of traumatic stress and help children reach their full potential:

  • Mental health therapeutic services for children and families with complex problems, including children experiencing parental substance abuse.
  • The Positive Parenting Program (“Triple P”), a widely used program shown to prevent child abuse and improve parenting skills. Classes take place at First 5 Centers and throughout the county.
  • Mental health consultation services for children exhibiting social-emotional or behavioral problems in child care settings.
  • Support for homeless children residing in emergency family shelters.
  • Developmental screenings provided to children at First 5 Centers and most First 5-funded programs to identify developmental concerns early.

Other Resources:

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