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Ohio Must Invest in Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health & Safety

By: Amy Meade, Director of the Center for Early Learning at Groundwork Ohio

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Brains are built on a foundation of early experiences. In the first few years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed every second. These neural connections, the brain’s architecture, are formed through the interaction of baby and their environment through early enriching experiences. All children are born with the ability to reach their highest potential, but connections that form early form either a strong or weak foundation for the connections that form later. These critical interactions with adults lay the foundation for all later learning, behavior, and health.

Babies who engage with responsive, consistent, nurturing caregivers and who live in safe and economically secure environments are more likely to have strong emotional health. ZERO TO THREE defines infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH) as “the developing capacity of the child from birth to 5 years old to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn—all in the context of family, community, and culture.” As children mature, early childhood mental health supports growth in other essential areas of healthy development including physical health, cognitive skills, language and literacy, social skills, and readiness for school.

In his executive budget, Governor DeWine made clear one of his priorities centers around early childhood mental health, with an increase of $20 million over the biennium to expand Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. As passed by the House, House Bill 33 cut $10 million to Governor DeWine’s proposed investment to support early childhood mental health credentialed counselors and consultation services. This program supports the healthy development of young children and reduces preschool to third-grade expulsions. It is a critical support to the early learning workforce that is currently facing an early childhood mental health crisis. The Senate further cut the proposed investment by $5.5 million over the biennium leaving the program with only $3 million and $4 million in each of the respective fiscal years. This is a nearly 70% cut to the Governor’s proposed investment.

Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation is a preventative strategy that places trained ECMH consultants in early childhood settings, such as child care centers, preschools, and home-based care providers. There has been a link to increased teaching skills and communication between staff and families, improved confidence of staff in early childhood settings working with children, reduction in teacher stress levels, and reduced staff turnover. ECMH consultants also work directly with families, stressing the parent-child relationship, and services can be provided directly in the home. These services address a variety of mental health needs facing our youngest children, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

As policymakers make plans for new investments in education, state leaders can act now to ensure that resources also support early childhood mental health from birth. The lack of investment in Ohio’s young children leaves Ohio’s young children behind and jeopardizes our future workforce.

All of Ohio’s young children need quality early learning experiences to ensure they can reach their full potential and a lifetime of success. Take action now by contacting your state legislators and being a Big Voice for Little Kids.

Thank you, Erin Lucas, for your advocacy, and for your continued efforts in keeping our legislators informed. Continue below to read the testimony Erin gave in Senate Health Committee on May 9, 2023.


By: Erin Lucas, Director of Early Childhood Programs at Hopewell Health

Thank you, Chair Huffman, Vice-Chair Johnson, Ranking Member Antonio, and members of the Senate Health Committee for this opportunity to share my experience with you today, specifically as it relates to the importance of the investments made in HB 33 towards Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation and the urgency for the Senate to restore funding levels for this program to the Governor’s proposed investment.

My name is Erin Lucas and I serve as the Director of Early Childhood Programs at Hopewell Health, a Federally Qualified Health Center, providing integrated primary care and behavioral health services with locations in 9 southeast Ohio counties. To illustrate the impact of Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation, let me share a scenario; A preschool teacher uses her puppet frog to ask children to put their hands to their hearts to hold their sadness indicating they are thinking of a loved one they have lost. Together with the frog, the class sings about what it feels like to be sad and how to be ok until the sad gets smaller again. One child who had challenged the teacher in previous lessons used Silly Stretches to move the sad out and then joined with classmates marching around stomping their sad into the ground. Experiences like these are made possible with early childhood mental health consultants, whose unique role is to support early learning professionals in using mental health tools to promote the mental health and wellness of young children, demonstrating the importance of our state’s investment in Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation.

Recovery in a post-pandemic Ohio involves frequent pivoting, creative collaboration, and cross-system support, all of which are happening across Ohio through our investment in early childhood and the specialized service of Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. When Ohio invested in the Whole Child Matters: Early Childhood Mental Health (ECMH) Initiative in 2016, it created a statewide system of support for promoting mental health and wellness through (1) Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation and (2) Training for early learning professionals. This funding and statewide leadership provided by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services under Dr. Valerie Alloy, Lead Administrator of ECMH Initiatives at the time, transformed access to care statewide and brought Ohio’s program to the forefront as a national model with empirically proven success.

At Hopewell Health Centers, this funding expanded our staff and therefore our impact. Growing from a team of 10 to a team of 23, with 16 specialized Early Childhood Mental Health Consultants allowed us to grow from serving 36 classrooms a year to 90 classrooms a year.

Each year:

· Over 150 early learning professionals receive support in meeting the mental health needs of children and families they serve, impacting more than 1,000 children.

· Over 3,300 early learning professionals are trained.

Through your investment in Hopewell Health Centers alone, you have supported the mental health and wellness of over 7,000 children since FY17 and over 22,000 training participants. This has had a transformational impact on our region.

Across the state, ECMH Consultants support over 10,000 children each year. ECMH Master Trainers train over 8,000 participants annually. With a satisfaction rate of 92-95%, early learning professionals participating in ECMH Consultation and/or training report increased capacity to promote mental health and wellness and respond to the mental health needs of young children.

Given that mental health and wellness is the biggest concern facing children from birth to graduation post-pandemic, this service is more vital now than ever. Without increased funding, the capacity to meet the needs of those caring for young children diminishes each year, resulting in an increased burden on other systems.

Take action now by contacting your state legislators and being a Big Voice for Little Kids.

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