For infants and young children, mental health means healthy social and emotional development. Infant Mental Health (IMH) is defined as "the developing capacity of the young child to experience, regulate, and express emotions; form close and secure interpersonal relationships; and explore the environment and learn, in the context of a caregiving environment that includes family, community, and cultural expectations for young children." (Zero to Three Infant Mental Health Steering Committee). This definition captures the broad scope of infant mental health practice across primary, secondary and tertiary levels of service and begins in pregnancy through to five years of age.
IMH is an interdisciplinary field recognising that all practitioners working with infants, young children and their families play a role in supporting early social and emotional development. Supporting parents to build a positive relationship with their baby at the earliest possible point in development, commencing in pregnancy prevents the development of more serious mental health concerns across the lifespan. This relationship based framework offers a preventative and early intervention approach that focuses on both the emotional wellbeing of the infant/very young child and their parents. Offering an IMH intervention to a family at this stage of development is an opportunity for growth as parents are motivated to give their child the best possible start in life. IMH is a relatively new field of practice in Australia and ECU is leading the way with the development of the Pregnancy to Parenthood (P2P) Clinic.
The School of Arts and Humanities discipline of Psychology has developed a specialist perinatal and infant mental health service and training program for the community through its Master of Clinical Psychology programme. Families in the community can access the ECU Pregnancy to Parenthood (P2P) clinic for a range of concerns including not coping in pregnancy, birth trauma, difficulties adjusting to parenthood, struggling to form a bond with your child and feeling flat, sad or depressed. Referrals come from a range of services across community and hospital settings.
Once a referral is deemed appropriate, families begin by participating in a comprehensive assessment over four sessions. This enables the clinical psychology trainees to join with the family and develop a shared understanding of what they are currently struggling with in early parenthood. Following a feedback and planning session, intervention commences, which on average involves families attending weekly to fortnightly sessions over 18 weeks.
The P2P Clinic also holds workshops for families on a range of topics relevant to early parenthood in collaboration with the City of Wanneroo Early Childhood Officers Karen Dales-Anderson and Hayley Cann. The first workshop of the series, ‘Feeling safe, secured and valued: understanding and supporting emotional well-being in early childhood’ was held in May. Families benefited from learning about the importance of building emotional literacy in infancy and early childhood and how to engage in reflective parenting to fully understand the meaning of a child’s behaviour. Parents were also invited to think about their own experiences of being parented and understand how these experiences are connected to the way they currently parent their children.
The next workshop in the series is a two session workshop on ‘Building First Relationships: Beginning in Pregnancy’ for families expecting a baby. The workshop series is a new component of the clinic services focussed on the promotion of healthy social and emotional well-being in pregnancy and early parenthood. It provides a much needed service to the community as well as giving trainees an opportunity to build skills and expertise in perinatal and IMH practice at a promotion-prevention level.
The P2P Clinic also provides clinical psychologist trainees the chance develop a unique set of skills and expertise that they can use in any setting as they prepare to enter the workforce. They report many benefits of engaging in IMH reflective supervision model and in particular are able to see the value of paying attention to the emotional processes which occur within the therapeutic relationship with a parent-infant dyad. Furthermore, the experience of facilitating community workshops at a promotion-prevention level has helped the trainees develop a different set of skills that focuses on the ability to communicating clear and important messages about IMH to the wider community.
Associate Professor Lynn Priddis, the Director of ECU’s clinical psychology programme will be leading an international symposium at the upcoming World Congress for Infant Mental Health in Prague. Together with clinical psychologist Rochelle Matacz, clinical supervisor of the P2P Clinic, student and community experiences in the clinic will be presented. ECU is unique in the world with its training programme for clinical psychology interns that sits alongside a newly badged postgraduate degree in Infant Mental Health.
ECU Psychological Services Centre
Level 2, ECU Health Centre, 30 Dundebar Road, Wanneroo WA 6065
Telephone: (61 8) 9303 7801
Facsimile: (61 8) 9303 7811