I am writing today on the importance of mental health as a part of the Jump Start curriculum. As a trained social worker, I am beyond excited that mental health is gaining greater recognition in society as a whole. For example, the month of May has been deemed mental health awareness month, people are speaking out on social media, dying strands of hair, getting tattoos and hopefully offering greater support, solidarity, and understanding to one another. I hope that as a community we are beginning to understand that our minds need to be cared for as much as our bodies.
In 2004, the World Health Organization defined mental health as: “A state of well-being in which the individual realizes his/her own abilities, can cope with the normal stressors of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his/her community” (Galderisi, Heinz, Kastrup, Beezhold & Sartorius, 2015).
I really like this definition because it speaks to the fact that “mental health” is more than just the absence of mental illness. I believe that working towards mental health is an active, continuous process, and requires that we come to truly know ourselves. Once we know ourselves, we can learn to be compassionate towards our struggles, and with awareness can develop strategies to bring us new strength and the ability to cope when things become difficult.
Still, in the midst of many competing demands each day, it can be easy for mental health to get pushed to the back burner or completely forgotten about. For families in the Jump Start program, I believe that home visits can be a regular opportunity for home visitors to help parents take a moment to reflect on who they are and how they are doing. Instead of sprinting through life just to get to the end of the day, taking a moment to consider our inner state, and the reasons behind our words and actions can help us to live with intention. When we live with intention we recognize that we have power over our words and actions, and the ways that we treat ourselves and others. This is particularly important as a parent because, as we love to say in the Jump Start program, “you are your child’s first and most important teacher.” In regards to mental health this means that your children will learn how to care for themselves by watching and listening to you.
Babies and young children are not equipped with the tools and skills to regulate their emotions and mental state independently. They don’t yet know how to identify their feelings, what might be causing them to feel that way, or how to take action. Without proper direction or examples from their parents, children may shut down or may act out in ways that are unacceptable when they experience strong feelings. If parents do not care for their own mental health, they are less likely to be able to help their children recognize and identify their feelings and emotions and to deal with them appropriately. Often this leaves both parent and child feeling more upset, frustrated and isolated.
This is why we bring handouts about things like coping with stress, dealing with loss, and experiencing postpartum depression. These are tools to prompt parents to become aware of things that might be affecting their own mental health and well-being, and hopefully discuss how to work through these challenges. This is also why we dedicate a section of our newsletter to self-care. Our hope is that parents will gain greater self-awareness and helpful coping skills, because when parents are thriving, their kids will too.