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What is Early Childhood Mental Health?

As attention to early childhood mental health has increased, some people question the use of the term “mental health” in connection with young children, given the stigma still associated with mental illness. Can infants, toddlers, and preschoolers even be mentally ill and, secondly, even if they can, why would we want to attach such a label to a child that might stick with him or her for a long time and negatively affect the way others respond to the child? Why call it early childhood mental health? To begin with, mental illness and mental health are not the same thing, even though they are often closely connected because, for example, agencies that treat mental illness often have the words “mental health” in their names. But one term focuses on a problem (illness), while the other focuses on something positive (health). When we talk about “early childhood mental health,” we are not primarily talking about bipolar disorder, major depression, or even oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, even though it is possible that some of the young children served by early childhood mental health initiatives will develop those illnesses. Rather, we are referring to the positive results of intervening early before problems develop into something more serious. Simply put, early childhood mental health is the same as healthy social and emotional development in young children, encompassing things like learning to express and regulate emotions, forming close and secure personal relationships, and exploring and learning about their environment (paraphrased from the definition developed by Zero to Three’s Infant Mental Health Task Force and used by Pennsylvania’s Infant-Toddler Mental Health Project.) So why don’t we call it “early childhood social and emotional development?” Besides that being quite a mouthful, the language of mental health is important not only for its educational value in combating stigma against mental health problems, but also for its implicit reminder that if we don’t do our job with prevention with young children, their problems may require more serious interventions later in life. We truly do want them to develop good “mental health” in the most positive sense of that term.

Source: (Statewide Initiatives/Early Childhood Mental Health).


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