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24 February 2011
Mental illness in babies overlooked

Infants can suffer serious mental health disorders, yet they are unlikely to receive treatment and may develop lasting developmental problems, say experts from the American Psychological Association.

Writing in American Psychologist, the researchers say the problem is "the pervasive, but mistaken, impression that young children do not develop mental health problems and are immune to the effects of early adversity and trauma because they are inherently resilient and 'grow out of' behavioral problems and emotional difficulties."

Contrary to traditional beliefs that infants cannot have mental health problems because they lack mental life, even young infants can react to the meaning of others' intentions and emotions because they have their own rudimentary intentions and motivating emotions, the researchers claim. While trauma can be a significant factor in developing mental health issues, the authors encourage more study of the impact of everyday life and continual interactions between infants and parents.

"Infants make meaning about themselves and their relation to the world of people and things. Some infants may come to make meaning of themselves as helpless and hopeless, and they may become apathetic, depressed and withdrawn. Others seem to feel threatened by the world and may become hyper-vigilant and anxious. Apparent sadness, anger, withdrawal and disengagement can occur when infants have difficulty gaining meaning in the context of relationships," the researchers note.

Mental health risks to infants are magnified by the fact that "the youngest children, from birth to age 5, suffer disproportionately high rates of maltreatment with long-term consequences for mental and physical health, pediatric health, and child care providers seldom identify or refer children under 5 years old to mental health services," according to researcher Joy Osofsky.

Osofsky and her co-researchers recommend:

  • Provide early screening for infants and toddlers to detect mental health issues, such as relationship disorders, depression and self-regulation problems.
  • Integrate infant mental health consultations into programs for parents, child care, early education, well-child health services and home-based services.
  • Address insurance and Medicaid payment policies to provide coverage for infants and toddlers.

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Source: American Psychological Association

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