Mental Health in Young Children: Why Early Experiences Matter

We’re kicking off Mental Health Month with a discussion about how difficult situations experienced as a child can set people off on a negative path in life. Charles Zeanah, M.D. , Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Tulane University School of Medicine, and other researchers, argue that negative experiences in childhood can change the architecture of a person’s brain, setting them up for mental health problems or other issues in the future.

Below are clips of his talk for the Academic Distinction Fund’s Distinguished Speakers Series last month.

While Dr. Zeanah doesn’t specifically discuss exposure to violence, he does explain that “Adverse early experiences may have long term consequences, affecting not only mental health, but physical health… Genetics supplies the basic blue print for brain development. But experiences that the individual child has adjusts the genetic brain plan of the brain and shapes the architecture of its neuro-circuits.”

In Part 3, Dr. Zeanah discusses the impact of trauma on children’s mental health.

But what can help keep kids on the right track mentally and emotionally?

Relationships, relationships, relationships,” Dr. Zeanah said. “The most important active ingredient in early experiences is the caregiving relationship the young child has with one or a relatively small number of caregiving adults…Healthy relationships with caregivers buffer the child and protect the child when they’re in high risk environments.”

Take a look at all six parts of Dr. Zeanah’s speech here.

According to the American Psychological Association, an estimated 15 million young people in the United States have a diagnosable mental or emotional health disorder but studies report that up to 80 percent will never receive treatment.

Mental Health Month, started in 1949 by Mental Health America, aims to highlight mental illness in children and adults and educate the public to erase the stigma, often a barrier to receiving treatment. During the second week in May, children’s mental health issues are highlighted and National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day is May 9.

Below are other resources to get you on your way with Mental Health Month. And as always, we hope you’ll join us here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter throughout the month as we discuss mental health as it pertains to childhood exposure to violence.

Mental Health America: Mental Health Month 2012
Resources from the originators of Mental Health Month.

Speak Up For Kids campaign
A coalition of mental health organizations and agencies that recruit psychologists and other mental health professionals to give presentations in their local communities about various mental, emotional, behavioral and learning disorders in children and teens.

SAMHSA: Mental Health, United States, 2010
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently released Mental Health, United States, 2010, the latest in a series of publications issued biannually by SAMHSA since 1980. Modeled after CDC’s annual report, Health, US, this new report includes mental health statistics at the national and State levels from 35 different data sources.


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