UW News

December 4, 2001

UW establishes Center on Infant Mental Health and Development

To focus on the social and emotional health and well-being of the youngest members of society, a new Center on Infant Mental Health and Development is being established at the University of Washington. The center will place special emphasis on vulnerable children at developmental risk for various reasons, including mental health issues faced by their mothers or other caregivers, an absence of social supports, conditions of poverty and homelessness, and parental substance abuse.

The new center is an interdisciplinary effort sponsored by the UW’s Center on Human Development and Disability (CHDD) and the UW School of Nursing, to be based at CHDD. The School of Nursing will offer a Certificate Program in Infant Mental Health to train specialists in the field. A Zero-to-Five Clinic will be established at CHDD. Research programs and community outreach will also be components of the new center.

The director is Dr. Kathryn Barnard, professor of family and child nursing and a CHDD research affiliate with an international reputation in early childhood development. “If we are to work with the infant, we must also work with the mother or other caregiver,” she said. “We recognize that the majority of early caregivers are the mothers. We will offer professional training to treat the relationship between the mother and child.”

Dr. Michael J. Guralnick, director of CHDD, notes that CHDD has been at the forefront of efforts for many years to support early childhood development and early intervention programs for vulnerable children and their families. “The new center will allow the consolidation and dramatic expansion of our early intervention programs to meet the mental health needs of infants and young children,” he said.

“This center came into being because of Kathryn Barnard’s passion for this area,” said Dr. Nancy Woods, dean of the UW School of Nursing. “Over her many years of research, she has learned that infants cannot wait. Becoming a good parent doesn’t come automatically.”

“The Center on Infant Mental Health and Development is a important resource for Washington families,” said Mona Locke, wife of Gov. Gary Locke and president of the Early Learning Foundation. “Studies of the social-emotional development of young children are important to further our knowledge of the early years and to help families provide the emotional support that children need. The Center will offer interdisciplinary training of professionals to provide the therapeutic support needed by many parents.”

Dr. Donna Weston, a developmental psychologist, will direct the center’s 18-month certificate program. Funding will permit training 50 students over a five-year period; 10 students will commence training in January. Dr. Marian Birch is clinical director of the certificate program, in which graduate students will work with families under direct supervision. Most contacts will take place in the home rather than the clinic. In the longer term, the training program will expand into full-fledged masters and doctoral programs. School of Nursing faculty associated with the certificate program, as well as a group of interdisciplinary faculty, will pursue research into social and emotional aspects of development.

Weston stresses that the new center is a training resource, not a competitor for existing agencies. “We’re committed to a strong relationship with community health agencies, social service agencies, and other organizations serving high-risk infants, all of which have a common set of issues: the safety of babies, and the welfare and functional adequacy of families,” she said.

The center will seek referrals from agencies, when a problem is seen in the mother-child relationship or in the infant’s own regulatory processes. Barnard noted that there is a high likelihood infants born prematurely will be referred. “These babies are at risk for developmental problems, and these difficult issues can become a problem in the mother’s relationship with the child, especially if the mother has other challenges of her own, such as teenage motherhood.”

By treating the parent-child relationship before long-term damage results from neglect, abuse, or parenting that is not sufficiently sensitive to the child’s needs, the hope is that a dent can be made in some of the unsettling statistics on the mental health of children. The Washington Kids Count study, a public policy project of the University of Washington, reported last month that mental illness is now the leading reason for hospitalization of people aged 5 to 19 in Washington state, with the most dramatic increase coming among younger school-aged children suffering from depression and disruptive behavioral problems. Depression is the most common mental health problem seen in children and teens.

“Of the approximately 90,000 infants born each year in the state of Washington, about 20 percent are born to parents not ready to take on the task of parenting,” Barnard said. “With this new program, whose goal is to prevent future problems, we hope to begin to make a dent in costs to schools, social service agencies, mental health services and prison systems.”

The center will also work toward changes in how the health-care system reimburses for expenses of infant mental health care. “This type of program can’t exist within the existing system of reimbursements,” said Weston. “Insurers pay to treat problems, not to prevent them from occurring in the first place. We will achieve success if we can affect these models for payment. Costs are much greater later, if you don’t treat these problems in the earliest stages.”

Major funding for the Center on Infant Mental Health and Development comes from local benefactors with a strong personal and professional interest in early childhood development, who have made a substantial five-year financial commitment.


For more information, contact Drs. Barnard, Weston or Birch at the Center on Human Development and Disability, (206) 543-9200.