Newswise — Mental health clinicians, Head Start teachers and parents in South Dakota will be better prepared to help young children cope with traumatic events and mental health/emotional challenges, thanks to a five-year, $2.2 million Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Grant.

“Child therapy is one of the biggest components of our community mental health work,” said Kris Graham, CEO of Southeastern Behavioral Healthcare in Sioux Falls. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services project, known as The South Dakota Early Childhood Mental Health Collaborative, will help professionals identify and work with children from birth through age five who are experiencing mental health/emotional difficulties. 

“This is a first-of-its-kind partnership between Southeastern Behavioral Health, South Dakota State University and ICAP Head Start, with the shared goal of increasing access to mental health services for children and families in South Dakota,” explained Assistant Professor Christin Carotta of the South Dakota State University Department of Counseling and Human Development. She is also an SDSU Extension Child and Family Specialist.

Assistant Professor Staci Born, a licensed play therapist, will lead workforce training with mental health clinicians and counselors, while Carotta will lead prevention efforts with Head Start teachers. Their work focuses on prevention, early identification and intervention as well as mental health treatment services.

There is a continual need for growth in the number of therapists who can work with children birth through age five, explained SBH Children’s Mental Health Director Celeste Uthe-Burows, who is the project’s clinical director. Associate Nursing Professor Cynthia Elverson will help evaluate the project’s effectiveness in addressing early childhood mental health needs. Two SDSU graduate students will also work on the project each year.

“We were very excited to hear that Southeastern Behavioral Healthcare and partners were awarded this grant to support professionals in working with young children and their families,” said Tiffany Wolfgang, Director of the Division of Behavior Health in the South Dakota Department of Social Services.

An estimated 9.5 to 14.2 percent of children from birth to five years of age nationwide experience social or emotional difficulties that can impair their development, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. These challenges can be associated with traumatic events such as a house fire, death of a parent and witnessing or being a victim of abuse.

“Early screening has a big impact. If you leave symptoms untreated, they can impact cognitive, mental, emotional and sometimes physical development,” Born said.

Graham agreed, “If we can get in touch with families and start working with the children at an early age, we won’t see them in the system as they get older.”

Through the grant, SEBH and SDSU will extend their outreach with Inter-Lakes Community Action Partnership Head Start, which serves 14 counties in eastern South Dakota. Among the 14 counties, 10 are designated as mental health shortage areas and 13 have medically underserved communities.  An estimated 270 children and 220 professionals will be served each year through this project.

ICAP Head Start programs also use an evidence-based social-emotional learning curriculum, Carotta explained. “We can help them assess implementation and provide additional training and support for teachers to help overcome barriers and ensure the curriculum is getting to children most in need.”

Steph Lebeda, Director of the ICAP Head Start program, said, “We look forward to working with SDSU and Southeastern Behavioral Healthcare to help us increase the effectiveness of our work with preschool children and their families.  We are seeing an increase in the need for mental health support in our classrooms and are extremely excited and appreciative of this opportunity.”

The return on investment for social-emotional learning interventions is $11 for every $1 spent, according to Born. “It’s about becoming a good human being. People skills and emotional regulation are stronger indicators of adult success than IQ.”

Initially, the researchers will focus their efforts on eastern South Dakota. Within three years, opportunities will become available for clinicians across the state.  Born and Carotta will also develop online coursework in early childhood development, mental health and trauma that will increase SDSU students’ and practicing professionals’ understanding of childhood adversity and strengthen support for positive developmental outcomes.

In addition to workforce development, Uthe-Burows pointed to parent involvement as another of the project’s strengths.  “When we work with parents, it’s a lifelong skill, something people can use forever.”