Infant Mental Health Now Offered from Behavioral Health Program

Shaun West is one of the Band’s behavioral health counselors, and his area of expertise just moved down an age group.

Infant Mental Health (IMH) is a developing area of mental health, which centers on children still in the womb to age 5. The purpose of IMH is to ensure a healthy, or secure, attachment between a baby and his or her primary caregiver.

“A lot of therapy is reactive—people come to therapy after a bad situation happens,” West said. “When we’re dealing with this population, this age group, it’s really preventative. We’re helping before something big can go wrong.”

IMH began in Michigan, and the state continues to lead in its development, partially thanks to The Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health (MI-AIMH), where West received his IMH endorsement.

This organization focuses on building public awareness of infant mental health needs, giving people the capacity to meet those needs, and structurally making IMH possible through policy-making and other avenues.

Pokagon Band citizens now have access to a mental health specialist and can receive care in this area.

“We can reach a different level of need,” said Daun Bieda, behavioral health coordinator. “We can reach those individuals who have never been seen before. Those barren parents, pregnant parents, parents who have just given birth and so forth. We have a specialized treatment now that can assist with postpartum depression, that can assist with children with colic.”

The age group specified for IMH is very young, but treatment reaches from the child to the primary care giver because of their interconnected relationship, West explained.

“It’s all about the child because we’re talking about the child’s ability to improve or do well in all their environments,” West said. “As we think about the child, we realize that there’s going to be someone there that’s the primary care taker, which the child shares most of its time and/or relationships with.”

Therapy sessions are “strengths-based” and “relationship-focused,” West explained. He watches the interaction between primary care giver and baby, treating the guardian as the “child expert” and “co-therapist” and helps them determine how to improve the relationship.

“This is not about somebody being a bad parent,” West said. “ Babies don’t come with manuals. They don’t. It’s not about what they’re doing wrong. It’s about helping them make things better for them. It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s about improving our abilities as parents.”

According to Maggie Sprattmoran, president of the MI-AIMH, they are in the midst of a five-year IMH study. It will show outcomes of the IMH programs, but researchers have early data pointing to the programs’ success.

“So many mental health issues that show up later in life, actually the seeds are planted in those earliest years, and particularly in terms of that relationship between primary caregiver and baby,” Sprattmoran said.

Children with secure attachments are much more likely to succeed academically and socially, according to Sprattmoran. On the flip side, children who do not have secure attachments are more likely to experience abuse and neglect, need special education and have poor physical health.

“We see this profound overlap of what happens between behavioral health and physical health,” Sprattmoran said. “So we’re really trying to understand that and trying to help physical health care providers understand enough about attachment to promote it so their clients have better outcomes.”

All Pokagon Band citizens can access this new area of care, be it through calling the Behavioral Health Program or a referral from another department.

“Any door is the correct door to get into our program,” Bieda said.

“Not all problems can be avoided,” West said, “but through programs like this, it will help the family and the child learn effective ways to deal with those strains when they come and effectively overcome those barriers in life.”