After learning that adult mental illness can often be prevented in early childhood, The Duchess of Cambridge, Katherine Middleton, is campaigning for communities to give more attention to mental health development in infancy and early childhood. Although an Australian celebrity is yet to take up the same cause here, a local business-charity partnership is stepping up to reduce early mental health risks faced by Australian children.
The initiative will provide accredited training in infant mental health promotion to an unlikely group of health workers: massage therapists.
“It’s a surprising group” agrees Ms. Campbell, the CEO of infant mental health charity Baby in Mind. “But when you look at all the research it just makes perfect sense”.
Around one in five of all Australian toddlers already show signs of mental health vulnerability, yet unlike the UK where infant mental health care is supported all the way up to the Royal Family, evidence-based infant mental health promotion and prevention has not been given much attention here.
“Generally, families need to have developed significant issues before they can access infant mental health support here in Australia. And of course by the time problems are noticed, specialist health care is needed. This has always been a serious concern for us” says Ms. Campbell “because many of these problems are preventable, and clearly many families are missing out on support to reduce risks early on.”
The charity, which does not receive any government funding, trains health workers to deliver a researched parent-baby program called The First Touch Program. The program provides parents with practical skills to support their baby’s mental health development, and it has twice been recognised in the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect awards. It is used by hospitals, child health, community and early intervention services across Australia. Although the program can be delivered by anyone who has been trained, Ms. Campbell says that qualified health workers make up the bulk of people attending the training. “But we know that they are mainly working with families at very high risk, and there is a whole population of families with much more subtle risks who don’t ‘qualify’ for these services and end up falling through the gaps” she explained.
“Although this is partly because of stigma and fear of being labeled a ‘bad parent’, we suspect that many people simply don’t realise that mental health begins in infancy and that there are incredibly simple and effective things which can be done”.
Statistics provided by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth highlight that up to 50% of adult mental illness is preventable with the right sort of infant mental health supports. With trials showing the First Touch Program and its components can help reduce and even reverse some of these early risks, Ms Campbell believes “we really have an obligation to think outside the box as to how we can reach even more families “.
“Because so many families use a massage therapist during pregnancy and after birth they already have a strong and trusting relationship. This particular partnership with Natural Therapy Pages is not about treating mental illness, but about empowering a broader range of services and health professionals to take up an active role in supporting healthy child development for all. These therapists will gain accredited training to deliver a simple and effective community parent education program, and to recognise potential red flags. By taking the program to where parents are already engaged, this partnership will help us reach up to a further 3,500 families over the next three years.”