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Minnesota Thrive Initiative: Early childhood mental health conference held in Bemidji

Asking for help while raising a child is healthy, not a sign something is wrong, according to Lin Backstrom, early childhood specialist with the Northwest Minnesota Foundation.

Backstrom and a team of others coordinated the first conference in the state focused exclusively on infant and early childhood mental health. The conference was held Friday at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Bemidji.

"Other (conferences) have had a track for early childhood, but this is the first one that just talks about infants and mental health," Backstrom said. "It's so new."

More than 100 people attended the conference for professionals working in the areas of mental health, medicine, public health, social work, special education and early education. The conference was presented by Northwest Minnesota Foundations' Thrive Initiative, serving the Bemidji, Blackduck and Kelliher area.

The Thrive Initiative, which started in 2006, was formed to improve local services for young children with mental health needs and their families.

Because the field of mental health in young kids is new and ever-changing, Backstrom said, professionals must regularly keep up-to-date on current information, studies and training.

"Mental health is a child's ability to express and regulate their emotions," she said. "A baby that cries all the time, is withdrawn, is really fearful or who doesn't talk when they should - these are social-emotional issues."

Backstrom said understanding the emotions and mental health of a child before the age of 5 is critical to preventing negative outcomes of children when they are older.

The good news is, she said, there are professionals in the area that strive to prevent this from occurring.

"We meet with childcare providers and help them," she said. "We want to make children feel understood. This makes for healthy expressions and feelings."

The conference featured an opening talk by L. Read Sulik, the assistant commissioner of the Chemical and Mental Health Services Administration for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Sulik talked about early brain development and its tie to emotional heath.

Terrie Rose, child psychologist and president of Baby's Space in the Little Earth Learning Center in Minneapolis, gave a closing talk on maternal/caregiver mental health and its impact on infant development.

Other session topics hit on autism spectrum disorders, children with social-emotional needs, professional competency in infant and early childhood mental health and diagnosing mental health problems in infants and toddlers.

Backstrom said she hopes those who attended the conference will feel reenergized and motivated to think of better ways to work with other agencies in their towns.

"When we learn together and when our programs work together, we give better service to families," she said. "People have to work together."

Five years ago Backstrom said when people talked about early childhood mental health, few people knew of the concept, including herself.

"I understood attachment, the first link between a parent and a child, and self-esteem, but I did not understand a child's mental health and its impact on everything else," she said. "It can short-circuit long-term mental health behaviors in the future."

When the a group of professionals on the Thrive Action Team got together four years ago, Backstrom said, she was amazed at how many professionals doing the same kind of work barely knew each other.

"Now they are working together," she said. "They are referring back and forth. Now people have more training. We have added to our capacity to help people. The training has been phenomenal."

The Thrive Action Team meets at 8:30 a.m. every third Thursday of the month in the community room in the Bemidji Public Library.