07 May Today is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day
Dear Access Institute Friends,
Earlier this week, a new study by Harvard researchers overturned the findings of the Moving to Opportunity Experiment – an effort by Congress in the early 1990s to see if re-locating low-income families out of poor neighborhoods could move them out of poverty. The experiment was mostly viewed as a failure, because after the move to wealthier neighborhoods parents did not earn more and the children did not immediately do better in school. The Harvard researchers reviewed the original study and found something astonishing: the children of their families, now adults, were earning an average 31% more than their peers who stayed in their original neighborhoods. Even more, the effect was greater among the children who moved at a younger age.
So what does this have to do with children’s mental health? This new research gives us a picture of how intergenerational change happens in the lives of families. It highlights the importance of early intervention. If we change important environmental factors early in the life of a child, then we can have a critical impact on the child’s internal world. Internal changes can break intergenerational patterns and open up new pathways for development.
How does this change happen? When children have safe, dependable environments and can rely on the people around them, it decreases their stress and allows their internal capacities to develop. In the Moving Opportunity study, parents may not have been earning more, but their physical and mental health improved, which allowed them to be more emotionally available to their children. Children may not have done better at school, but the schools they were in had more resources and fewer disruptions. Also, children learned they could count on getting help and have realistic expectations of succeeding. Children’s relationships with parents, teachers and the greater world around them became stronger and more dependable.
At Access Institute, we work with children living both in and out of poverty, in and out of neighborhoods plagued with violence. Access Institute therapists are dedicated to working to change the environments of the children we serve, working closely with parents and teachers to strengthen those important relationships and bend them towards health. Together, child and therapist work to shift the landscape of the child’s inner world: their feeling of being able to trust and depend on others, and on themselves, to create the expectation of a reliable world inside.
National Mental Health Awareness Day intends to set aside a time each year for the direction of our thoughts toward children’s mental health and well-being. As the Child Services Director of Access Institute, I work every day to address the complex mental health needs of children, youth, and families. We don’t have the ability to change children’s neighborhoods, but we help to build up their school environments and develop their emotional capacities, so they can meet their challenges and break the cycles of violence and poverty. Today, I hope you will join me in thinking about how to contribute to the progress of the children in our lives.
Abigail Levinson Marks, Ph.D.
Child Services Director – Access Institute