Mental Health Awareness Month – Nurturing our keiki

Nurturing of mental health begins early; Hawaii’s youngest children can’t wait

By JoAnn Farnsworth and Ryan Kusumoto

The well-being and development of children under age 5 is critical to strengthening Hawaii’s communities. When a priority is placed on the early childhood development of our state’s youngest keiki, it improves equity and future outcomes among families with young children. Interventions at this stage of life can help create healthier children and result in future cost savings for special education, mental health treatment, juvenile justice and incarceration.

The time between birth and 5 years old is a critical time of growth and opportunity for keiki, but it can also be a time of great risk and vulnerability. Mental health needs can have long-lasting and detrimental impacts on young children that may affect their path into adulthood. Unfortunately, these needs are often not recognized or prioritized like those of physical health.

Out of the 102,000 children under the age of 6 in Hawaii, it is estimated that one-fourth or more than 25,000 require mental health services, which is on par with adult mental health needs.

Babies, toddlers and preschoolers have mental health needs and there is no doubt that government-funded programs can help address them.

At a young age it might be displayed as disruptive or aggressive behavior like throwing toys, or conversely, being withdrawn or anxious like retreating to a corner of the room. Whether disruptive or withdrawn, these behaviors can be signs of trauma experienced by the child or family.

Trauma can wreak havoc on developing brains and bodies — like a car engine that’s revving at high levels for an extended period of time. All the wear and tear are damaging.

For example, if a child is abused by a nonfamily member, the parents may begin noticing that the child gets nervous around other adults, often crying when approached.

If the family is able to recognize signs and access appropriate therapies, the child can begin to heal. It also can be extremely helpful to the parents in enabling them to understand their child’s trauma.

Had the child not received mental health treatment, they would be at risk for learning challenges, depression, anxiety and even overt and potentially devastating aggression and self-harm.

As steering committee members of Commit to Keiki, we suggest that one immediate strategy to meeting the mental health needs of our youngest keiki include investing in the state’s Infant and Early Childhood Behavioral Health (IECBH) Plan.

This plan proposes to integrate child and family mental health into health care and early childhood systems throughout the state. By doing so, we can ensure that families have easy to find, affordable and quality support services for their keiki.

In a recent voter poll conducted by Commit to Keiki, 8 in 10 voters (82.6%) think it is important for Hawaii’s next governor to prioritize programs that address mental health needs for families and young children in the next budget.

And nearly three-quarters (74.5%) support creating a system of high quality, publicly-funded, community-based child care, early learning and family support programs.

The gubernatorial elections are just a few months away. Commit to Keiki is a nonpartisan initiative that is focused on engaging with candidates to educate and encourage them to commit to our three priorities: (1) early childhood mental health, (2) family violence prevention, and (3) child care and early learning, all areas that contribute to healthy early development.

For our state’s next governor, leadership is key to meeting the needs of our island families.

And as a state, we need to prioritize policies, state investments and access to mental health services for our youngest keiki.