Expanding Capacity to Support Families

October 27, 2020

--By Kim Firth, EH Program Director

As a parent, I have experienced first-hand the impact that COVID-19 has had on children's mental health and overall well-being. The change of routines, break in continuity of learning and in health care, loneliness and physical separation from friends and family, and missed life events are taxing on children and parents alike.

Pre-pandemic, we understood that social and emotional challenges in children were common and that we, as a state, must do more to ensure that all children receive the services and supports they need for healthy development. The need for a continuum of care that supports children and their families has never been more evident.

Many families are also experiencing job loss and the repercussions of an economic shutdown that none of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Financial stressors, food and housing insecurity, and domestic violence are raining down on too many Granite State families, causing toxic stress that impacts mental health and well-being.

Not surprisingly, these circumstances are leading to spikes in emergency room admissions for acute mental health and substance use needs and highlight the lack of capacity in our family support and mental health systems. New Hampshire must continue to make progress implementing our 10-year Mental Health Plan, focusing not only on evidence-based treatment for children and families with the most acute needs, but also on those services and supports that build resilience, promote well-being, and provide concrete supports during these difficult times.

Caring and nurturing adults in a child's life buffer toxic stressors and promote healthy brain development, resilience and well-being. When parents are under the kind of stress that we have experienced during the pandemic it can be difficult to focus on our children's needs. The network of family resource centers, are there to help mitigate family stress and provide an array of information and connections to community resources. So too are organizations like Waypoint NH and the National Alliance on Mental Illness New Hampshire. Social connections also help build protective factors and buffer parents from stressors.

Across the state we are seeing schools responding to the pandemic and community needs in unprecedented ways, addressing food insecurity, expanding social-emotional learning opportunities, and increasing access to mental health supports for students. New approaches like utilization of the multi-tiered system of supports for behavioral health promote wellness through a positive school climate and ensure problems are identified early and addressed. These approaches recognize the role we all play in health promotion and prevention. While they have been critical in response to the pandemic, they are approaches that need to continue post-COVID-19 and beyond.

Expansion of family resource centers, home visiting and other services to support families, and modest enhancements to our public mental health system have been made possible by recent state investment. We can't afford to slide backward in our commitment to implement the 10-Year Mental Health Plan. As this crisis demonstrates, New Hampshire continues to suffer from historical disinvestment in the systems that support children and families. We have work to do and delays implementing policy changes have exacerbated the mental health crisis we are now experiencing. We need expanded capacity for the continuum of family support, mental health and substance use treatment now more than ever.