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Nebraska Association of Infant Mental Health Celebrates Small Things

Something small happened on April 6, but it happened in a big way. Small only in that we’re talking about the smallest among us—infants and toddlers. The Nebraska Association of Infant Mental Health (NAIMH) ushered in a new era of big change in the field when it celebrated its partnership with the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, an internationally recognized certifying agency for the field.

The day was designed to draw focus to the importance of infant mental health and to celebrate the long wished for Infant Mental Health Endorsement (IMH-E®) beginning in Nebraska. Over the past year, an Endorsement Leadership Committee was selected and has been the first to work through getting Endorsed as a way to build capacity and get Nebraska ready for this day.

After opening comments by Sami Bradley, who acts as co-leader with Holly Hatton-Bowers of NAIMH, Joy Osofsky, PhD, spoke as keynote. Dr. Osofsky is the Paul J. Ramsay Endowed Chair of Psychology and a Barbara Lehman Professor of Child Welfare at Louisiana State University, where she also acts as Director of the Harris Center for Infant Mental Health. Osofsky focuses her work on the impact of trauma on infants and toddlers and knows well the importance of an aligned and well-supported infant mental health system.

In her book, Treating Infants and Young Children Impacted by Trauma, she notes that “by 2 to 3 years of age, approximately 26% of children had been exposed to trauma and 14% exposed to violence.” She adds that additional risk factors make exposure more likely, citing the example that “49% of children living in poverty had been exposed to trauma and were 2 to 5 times more likely to be exposed to violence.” She goes on to say that she and other professionals in the field have used their “experience over the years to help dispel the myth that infants and toddlers are not affected by trauma and to help promote understanding that early intervention and treatment can make a difference. An important part of our efforts has been the education of psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, social workers, and other health professionals about the impact of trauma on young children and the evidence-based treatments that work.” It thus speaks highly of the work done by NAIMH that she said in her opening comments, “Nebraska has really taken the lead in many ways.”

It was then Eleanor Shirley’s turn to highlight the ways in which Nebraska Infant Mental Health had grown into its leadership role over the years. Shirley, who is currently Facilitator for the Nebraska Department of Education’s Office of Early Childhood-Interagency Coordinating Council, but has a long professional history encompassing much of this work in NE, traced the roots of infant mental health in the state from the 2001 Governor’s Symposium on Early Childhood Mental Health through the founding of NAIMH in 2006 to the current ongoing professionalization of the field through the Infant Mental Health endorsements. She underscored the implementation of important initiatives along the way, including Pyramid Model training, the launch of the Nebraska Early Childhood Coaching training, development of the Circle of Security Parenting Leadership Team, and the incorporation of Reflective Practice training.

Shirley lauded work in the state, “Nebraska early childhood professionals have taken the risks—keep taking those risks—be willing to be out front.  We’ve often gone the extra mile with what little resources we had at our disposal, making up the game, not always knowing who the players are, but always, always, staying on the path one foot in front of the other, doing whatever it takes.”

It was this “can do” attitude that led to the culmination of the days events when the eight professionals pursuing endorsement were recognized. The Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health offers four levels of certification to a wide range of practitioners from providers and home visitors to licensed child psychotherapists: Infant Mental Health Associate, Infant Family Specialist, Infant Mental Health Specialist, and Infant Mental Health Clinical, Faculty, or Policy. Certification requires a rigorous process of application, including references, demonstrated leadership in the field, education and trainings related to the field, an extensive peer review process, and, for two of the categories, a comprehensive exam. Aiesha Rahn of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation completed her endorsement as Infant Family Specialist, while the other seven still await the results of their tests.

The event was attended by 109 participants from across the state, who not only gained insight into the need for advancement in the field of infant mental health, but who also were encouraged to pursue their own interests in endorsement to meet the growing needs of Nebraska’s children and families. As Eleanor Shirley put it, “the birth cohort in Nebraska is approximately 25,000/year which means 75,000 infants and toddlers need us each and every day.  They need you!  Stay strong, stay true…congratulations to NAIMH on this important step in “building big” while on your path of “thinking small.”