In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, many people, myself included, wrote about the need to address both gun control and mental health care. So it was rather jarring, on the same day that Connecticut's governor signed comprehensive new gun control legislation, to read that Cambridge Health Alliance was planning to cut 11 of 27 child inpatient psychiatry beds, including all inpatient service for children age 3-7.
But on closer consideration, I wonder if this loss in fact presents an opportunity. With no inpatient care for young children, it now behooves us as a society to make sure they never need such care. As a pediatrician with 25 years experience working with troubled children, I can be sure that when a child needs hospitalization at age 4, 5 or 6, his problems started way before that. The Globe article suggests that plans are headed in this direction.
Burke [chief of psychiatry] said the hospital is focusing more on efforts that can keep children out of the hospital, including services in schools and placing psychiatrists in pediatricians’ offices.This is an excellent idea. But what does it look like in practice? Number one, we need a workforce experienced in early child development. There is an explosion of knowledge and research, coming out of the discipline known as infant mental health, that informs us of how to work with parents and children together to help set young children on a path of healthy development.
Such training programs are erupting all over the country. One superb program is right here in Boston- the UMass Infant-Parent Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate Program under the direction of renowned researcher Ed Tronick.
Fellows in that program learn from leaders in the field, including child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, whose neurosequential model of therapeutics informs us of how to use knowledge of neurodevelopment to guide treatment.
We need these programs because most child psychiatrists have minimal to no education in early child development, and pediatricians, who live and breathe child development and have long-term relationships with families, are under pressure to see 6 patients an hour, and so have no time to help. In the ideal world, training in infant mental health would also be incorporated in to pediatric and child psychiatry training.
We cannot let the bottom fall out for these children. By taking away these beds, a preventive model is no longer optional. A person trained in early childhood mental health should be in every primary care office, and every childcare center should have easy access to early childhood mental health care professional for on-site consultation. I wonder if this might even cost less than maintaining inpatient beds.
Of course this does not help the children today who need inpatient care. Ideally we would be able to offer both forms of help. Perry's model is relevant for treatment of older children as well. I do not know the answer to this problem. However, I can be sure that parents, who are suffering terribly waiting with their severely troubled young child for an inpatient bed to become available, would have much preferred to get meaningful help years before.
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