11th June 2021
In support of Infant Mental Health Awareness Week (7-13 June 2021 – #IMHAW21 #IncludingInfants), a Voices Blog by Anne McFadyen, IMH Lead, Perinatal Mental Health Network Scotland and Chir, SG IMH Implementation and Advisory Group.
What is infant mental health and why should we worry about it? Many people find the term ‘infant mental health’ problematic, but how else are we to describe our growing awareness about how important the very early weeks, months and years are to the development of babies’ brains and minds? At this critical stage, babies’ brains grow and make connections that support the development of empathy and self-regulation, and the capacity to make and sustain relationships.
This brain (and mind) development depends on close supportive early relationships. The absence of the right environment at this point can lead to later problems. Parents don’t need to be perfect but must do a dance with their babies which allows the baby to learn to manage frustration and develop autonomy. As Winnicott (1968) said, ‘Human beings fail and fail, and in the course of ordinary care a mother is all the time mending her failures.’ When things do go, wrong families, sometimes need help to manage. Timescales are critical in this context as, when developmental trajectories go awry, there can be a rapid escalation of infant ‘distress to disturbance‘ and ultimately disorder.
As part of the Perinatal Mental Health Network, we have focused on developing systems to support babies’ wellbeing when their mother was mentally unwell. We know that severe mental health problems can affect the baby and the developing relationship profoundly.
In 2019, the Scottish Government made a commitment to develop perinatal and infant mental health services. A Programme Board was set up to do this and was asked to oversee the development of infant mental health services in line with the Programme for Government (2019-20):
‘Implement and fund a Scotland-wide model of infant mental health provision. These infant mental health services aim to meet the needs of families experiencing significant adversity, including infant developmental difficulties, parental mental illness, parental substance misuse, domestic abuse and trauma.’
This wider aim is to develop services from conception to three years of age that address the needs of families whose parents may not have access to formal mental health services. Many are supported by third sector organisations, but some have no supports at all.
I’m really delighted that this work has progressed apace in the last few months with trail-blazing service development in some parts of Scotland. NHS Lanarkshire has made history by appointing a Consultant in Infant Mental Health Psychiatry. She will join a team of child psychotherapists, social workers and others.
At a national level, our Perinatal (Maternal and Infant) Mental Health Curriculum sets out competencies and is backed by a fantastic suite of training at all levels which has been developed by NES (NHS Education Scotland). And Inspiring Scotland has supported the funding of additional IMH training for third sector workers.
One of our aims has been to communicate the importance of infant mental health to everyone. Our marketing campaign, Wellbeing for Wee Ones, is linked to resources on the ParentClub website (https://www.parentclub.scot/topics/health/wellbeing) and has been well received.
Anne McFadyen, IMH Lead, Perinatal Mental Health Network Scotland and Chir, SG IMH Implementation and Advisory Group