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Babies are a little (ok, a lot) emotional. One moment they coo, and the next they sob seemingly because you had the audacity to hand them a favorite toy. That over-the-top spectrum of behavior is completely normal. What’s not is an unusually withdrawn baby, one who has stopped crying to communicate, which can be an early sign that his mental wellness is hurting. “We diagnose PTSD in babies as young as nine months old,” says Dr. Shannon Bekman, program manager for Denver’s Right Start for Infant Mental Health. “You can diagnose depression fairly reliably in an infant as young as four months.”
That doesn’t mean Bekman and her team—seven full- and part-time staffers at the Child and Family Services department of the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD)—put babies on a shrink’s couch. In truth, their therapy rooms look a lot like family rooms, with puffy pillows, colorful toys, and wooden blocks. What is different is the large observational window in one of the rooms. This allows psychologists to observe caregivers and babies interacting, so they can watch caregivers’ behaviors and catch the infants’ nonverbal cues—smiles, grunts, lack of eye contact—which show how babies feel about the adults who watch over them. “The way you help infants and young children is via the relationships with their caregivers,” Bekman says. “The disorder resides within the relationship.”
Focusing on relationship-based treatment is key because while the child is, technically, the patient (referred to Right Start via pediatricians, preschools, daycare centers, and Human Services, or at a parent’s request), the parent is often in need of help too. A rape victim may have difficulty connecting with a child conceived from that crime. A woman who’s suffered one child’s death might remain emotionally distant from a healthy baby. A father who grew up in an abusive household may struggle to manage his emotions as a parent.
The program, which started in 2010, has grown to serve about 100 families each year—a 66 percent increase since 2012. (It is mostly funded through Medicaid.) Fittingly, as Right Start transitions out of its early years, it’s also moving to the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being, a new 46,000-square-foot building in Northeast Park Hill. The sun-filled, multiuse community space will house an expanded Right Start program with an additional observation room so clinicians can better serve families, says Dr. Lydia Prado, MHCD’s vice president of Child and Family Services. “You can change the trajectory of a child’s life,” Prado says, “if you get involved early.”
5,400: Size (in square feet) of the new Dahlia Campus’ aquaponics building, in which the Mental Health Center of Denver will raise fish to sell as part of its effort to build mental wellness through nutrition (healthy fuel builds healthy brains), education, and communication. During summer, produce from a one-acre garden and greenhouse (rendering at left) also will be sold at a market stand. The campus’ main building will host exercise classes, cooking lessons, and other programs through MHCD’s Child and Family Services.
—Embedded photo courtesy of Mental Health Center of Denver