Better childcare prevents mental health problems

Research published last year has finally made a clear causal link between early childhood neglect and lifelong mental health issues.

We have long seen correlations between childhood emotional damage and lifelong issues such as lower IQ, attachment disorders and mental illness. Intervention to date has primarily focused on dealing with these problems as they arise, but little was known about exactly what was happening physiologically.

About 10 years ago a US study examined this link by comparing children raised in the infamous state-run Romanian orphanages with a group who were removed from these institutions and placed in foster care and a third group who remained with their original parents.

The study was called the Bucharest project and it made a significant finding, orphans who went to foster homes before the age of two often recovered some of their abilities whereas those who left the orphanage after age two rarely did.

It seemed the first two years of life were absolutely crucial to protecting the brain from lasting damage from neglect. Still, more research was needed in order to further understand this phenomenon.

A similar study conducted last year found the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes (called telomeres) are shorter in children who spent longer in the Romanian orphanages.

It seems damage to the telomeres could change the timing of how some cells develop, including those in the brain. Individuals with shorter telomeres were more likely to develop future mental difficulties.

We finally have some biological evidence that neglect in infancy changes the way the brain develops.

With this information, we now know that a good way to prevent some of these mental health problems is to take action during the first two years of a child's life to prevent the damage from occurring.

Early interventions in a child's life such as supports and education for parents and improvements to the quality of childcare facilities could have a big positive impact on the lives of the children affected.

It is estimated that childhood adversity is associated with roughly one in five cases of severely impairing mental disorders and one in four anxiety disorders in adulthood, problems that are very costly to our society in both human and economic terms.

As is often the case, a little bit of well-planned preventive spending would likely go a long way toward ensuring a healthier, happier future generation. The dollars spent to ensure all children are nurtured during their formative years would save much of the money spent later in life on the costly interventions necessary to deal with the problems stemming from sub-standard care in infancy.

What we need is some foresight by our government to see the value of investing in the lives of children today for a better tomorrow.


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