Although this blog highlights the benefits of Northern Ireland’s Infant Mental Health framework (PHA, 2016), I urge readers to take it on the side of caution. Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Government since January 2017 and many of our policies have sat in transit since this time. We are still keeping a float. In parts. There are many areas though, where our people are failed. Mental health and wellbeing is one of these.
Our Country has the highest number of suicides across the islands and, over the last year, there’s been three times more people die here by suicide, than there has been in fatal car accidents (BBC, Sept 2019). I make no apology by highlighting the severity of our crisis; all of us in NI have been impacted by someone feeling so overwhelmed that they can no longer go on. Supporting mental health is not just a policy, it is ourselves, neighbours, colleagues, friends, neighbours, families and our children. As I highlight the positives of the framework, be aware that there is still a very long journey for us to go and this runs right through from childhood to our elderly community.
But we have taken action and the infant mental health framework is a positive starting block. The importance of early intervention and investment has been recognised. We are aware that ‘positive experiences and good relationships between children and caregivers form the basis of lifelong mental health’ (Dozier et al, 2006) and the framework commits our local authorities to improve mental health interventions from the antenatal period, up until three years of age.
There are four overarching objectives for the framework:
• Parents and practitioners to understand the importance of attachment.
• Develop the skills of parents and practitioners to engage positively with children to support social and emotional development.
• Support practitioners and parents to respond to predictors of vulnerability and delays in social and emotional development.
• Provide appropriate services that can respond to identified mental health and wellbeing delays and concerns in infants.
Within the framework, the whole child approach is taken and the emphasis on joined up partnership work is identified as essential. Infant mental health ‘is therefore everybody’s business’ (PHA, 2016). As an Early Years Lecturer, I do not only stand to account in ensuring this area is high on my own professional priorities, but that it is also covered in great detail to all of the Early Years Practitioners that I train at FE and HE level. We have reviewed serious case reviews and explored what devastation can happen when services don’t communicate with each other, but it is not just in the most sobering and complex situations where this is paramount. By using early interventions and enabling strategies, we can begin to support families to manage their emotional health and improve children’s later outcomes. The Framework holds us to account to ensure that we do this in the best possible way for the child and their family.
Priority two within the framework is on workforce development and this, impacts Early Years professionals within NI greatly. All of us, in any of our locations and positions, can learn a lesson on prioritising this area. Supporting well-being in children’s infancy is an area of knowledge and practice that all of us should be embedding into our development plans. I do not just mean attending the odd workshop or seminar, but actively seeking out information and evaluating how it impacts on the way in which we implement support strategies. Through the Framework, ACES training has been funded from the top down, allowing us to develop the skills of staff through the whole chain of the workforce. The Early Years Curriculum for practitioners has also been redesigned over the last three years, and being part of this working group, I have seen how we have used the framework to prioritise vital knowledge that the workforce need in order to develop children’s social and emotional needs.
I urge practitioners to sit down as a team and evaluate how they strengthen infant’s resilience and emotional well-being. Review your partnerships with parents and how you give them strength to realise that their impact is so vitally important to their children’s learning and development. Map your gaps in knowledge and understanding of this area and review what steps you will take to enhance them. Your influence as a professional, to both children and families, is vast. ‘When babies feel secure they release a hormone called oxytocin, which acts as a fertiliser to their growing brain, helping them to be happy babies and more confident children and adults’ (Unicef, 2019). It is our responsibility to pollinate those little minds full of coping and resilience mechanisms as much as we possibly can. Looking after emotional health, is just as important as taking care of our physical needs. Start raising it on the agenda from the very beginnings and consider your own framework on improving children’s later outcomes by prioritising the emotional and social needs of each individual child who steps through your door.
Fey has worked in the Early Years Sector for nearly twenty years, initially training as a Nursery Nurse in London, before moving onto development and training roles. For sixteen of these years, she has formally studied Early Childhood, Playwork and Teaching; whilst also visiting a range of local and international settings to inform her practice. Now living in Northern Ireland, she has spent the last eight years working within an FE/HE College as an Early Years Lecturer. She has a keen interest on intergenerational care and supporting Children’s wellbeing in the Early Years.
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