Embedding the Science of Infant Mental Health in Practice and Policy

Executive Summary

Ontario is a vibrant province diverse in its communities ranging from large urban settings to rural communities that span a great geographic distance. The diversity of Canadian communities underscores the need to work locally with agencies and experts to determine how the science and best practices for infant and early mental health can be effectively embedded into policies, programs and services. While some aspects of mental health services may be well-designed or under construction in some regions, an inclusive and coordinated system of infant and early mental health services is, in itself, in its infancy. Building on the findings of an environmental scan, conducted by IEMHP, of a sample of Ontario communities, and subsequent recommendations included in the recent Supporting Ontario’s Youngest Minds: Investing in the mental health of children under 6 report (Clinton, et al., 2014 p. 21), it is evident that:

  • Practitioners in the field of infant and early mental health come from a wide range of backgrounds and sectors that may be outside of traditional mental health services. The level of training among staff delivering services varies, and there is inconsistent understanding of what infant and early mental health means. 
  • The types of early mental health care, including a variety of access points, tools, and interventions available to young children and families in direct service settings varies among agencies. The extent to which these services are accessible also varies. 
  • Agencies use a variety of screening and assessment instruments to understand family needs and develop treatment plans. A systematic protocol for regular screening and assessment to support mental health and typical development is not consistently in place, and initiatives vary between agencies and sectors. 
  • While internal referrals for service delivery within agencies appear to be relatively fast, wait times for referrals between agencies to obtain external assessments are reportedly an average of 4 to 6 months, with wait times for services ranging from 6 weeks to a full year. This poses significant barriers to access to services, with young children often “aging” out and losing eligibility for the recommended services during the early years.

In December 2014, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) provided funding to IEMHP to create a collaborative, community-based process to further explore the issues at play for direct service delivery agencies. Through this project, IEMHP consulted with five communities in Ontario (Niagara, Simcoe, Muskoka and Parry Sound, Ottawa, and Regent Park Toronto) to gain a better understanding among all agencies and sectors concerned with infant and early mental health as to the existing gaps or barriers, opportunities for improved service delivery, and potential solutions for inter-systemic supports. Common themes emerged across communities about infant and early mental health practices, policies, services, and in relation to the knowledge and competencies of those working with this young population and their families.

Infant and Early Mental Health Promotion, the hospital for sick children

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