Bill passes to improve mental health of RI’s youngest children

PROVIDENCE – The House and Senate have passed legislation establishing a task force aimed at improving the mental health of some of Rhode Island’s youngest children.

The task force will be charged with drafting “a state plan to improve the promotion of social and emotional well-being of young children as well as screening, assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental health challenges in currently covered Medicaid mental health services for infants and young children under the age of six,” according to the Senate bill.

The bill states that about half of the state’s children younger than 6 are covered by Medicaid and would be eligible for help.

“Addressing mental health for all Rhode Islanders has been and continues to be a priority,” Sen. Lou DiPalma, one of the legislation’s champions, told The Journal in an email. “It is paramount we address any/all mental health challenges early in a child’s development.”

A mounting body of research shows that the developing brain is susceptible to trauma and stress, sometimes with lifelong consequences — but early treatment can improve outcomes.

RI Association for Infant Mental Health to be a key player

“It’s hard to imagine that very young children, sometimes even before they can talk, can and do experience mental health challenges … which can be related to trauma, neglect, biological factors, and/or environmental conditions,” Rhode Island Association for Infant Mental Health executive director Susan Dickstein, an associate professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, wrote in an email to The Journal.

“These experiences impact the rapidly developing brain and can have negative consequences in all areas of the young child’s development. We know that prevention and early intervention practices that promote nurturing relationships can address infant/early childhood mental health concerns, and can facilitate healthy brain development .”

The Rhode Island Association for Infant Mental Health is one of several organizations, along with experts from many fields, that will comprise the task force.

Care can be difficult to find

Accessing care particularly during the COVID pandemic has been difficult for many families, as Rhode Island Kids Count documented in May with the release of its annual Factbook report.

The task-force legislation agrees, stating “in Rhode Island, approximately fifty percent [50%] of infants and young children have Medicaid health coverage which covers screening, evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment for children’s mental health needs starting at birth. Data from 2018 indicate that less than eight percent [8%] of the Medicaid population under age six [6] received any mental health services.”

The bill also states that “It is essential to treat young children’s mental health challenges in the context of their relationships within families, homes, and communities. The emotional well-being of young children is directly tied to the functioning of their parents/caregivers and the families in which they live. Thus, successful mental health treatment for young children involves working to build and strengthen consistent, supportive relationships within their families and community.”

Following Senate approval, the House passed the legislation on Thursday, the last day of this session of the General Assembly. The bill now awaits Gov. Dan McKee’s decision.

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