May is Mental Health Month, a time to recognize that all of us should care about our mental health and the mental health of our loved ones. Investing in our children’s well-being and positive mental health is an investment in their healthy futures. Many mental health problems in childhood are related to chronic stress in the form of severe poverty, exposure to violence, living in a home with substance-abusing adults, or other stressful situations. Chronic stress can lead to a host of illnesses early on, but it also increases the risk of physical and mental problems when children grow into adulthood.
There can be a delay of many years – even decades – before diseases appear, according to such experts as Linda Mayes, MD, director of the Child Study Center. These diseases may include not only depression, anxiety, and addiction, but also heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.
Early stress also impacts how adults care for their children when they become parents, which in turn affects the next generation. Dr. Mayes and her colleagues increasingly take into account the effect of early stress on multiple generations and how early mental health problems can turn into chronic lifelong conditions.
Chronic stress can weaken the body’s response to disease, increase susceptibility to illnesses, and even cause changes in the brain. It can also disturb the body’s responses to stress, potentially for the remainder of a person’s life. Besides increasing the risk of disease, it can shorten a person’s life span by disrupting the body’s ability to adapt to the stressors of everyday life.
“Early stress and adversity gets embedded into our biology,” says Dr. Mayes. During our early years the brain and other organs are sensitive to environmental signals. Early stress may cause risk factors for adult disease to be biologically embedded in the brain and other organs. It also affects our genes, leaving a “chemical imprint” of experience that we carry forward and that has far-reaching effects on our bodies and behavior.
Breaking the Cycle
Interventions to reduce stress can potentially benefit families by interrupting the chain of events that leads to problems later on. Child Study Center experts are studying resilience and recovery in children and families who have successfully navigated traumatic events and stress to examine protective factors that might be helpful. “We’re trying to prevent stressful events from launching a cycle of trauma so children don’t reenact them when they reach adulthood,” says Dr. Mayes. Prevention is key to helping children live prosperous, healthy lives.
Faculty at the Child Study Center are also developing approaches to help parents cope with the stress of raising a family. These include a home visiting program for first-time young families to promote positive physical and mental health, programs in the community especially for parents, a mobile app that helps pregnant women and young mothers who are depressed connect to one another and the larger community, and a new center for parents and families focusing especially on what adults need as they care for their children.
Yale child health experts are hopeful that guiding families on ways to prevent the stressful situations that lead to disease later in life will lead to healthy, sustainable communities.
To learn more, visit the Child Study Center at http://childstudycenter.yale.edu/ or call 203-785-2540.