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Sarnia Speaks tackles early years mental health

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Tara Jeffrey

Most people don’t look at infants and young children and worry about mental health.

“We know that those first years are a critical period when an infant’s brain is developing,” says Virginia Allan, director of community services for St. Clair Child & Youth. “And a lot of people don’t realize that, some kids are exposed to difficult things before they can speak. The memories are there, they just can’t express them.

“So it tends to be expressed as behaviour.”

Allan will join a panel of speakers to discuss early years mental health at the first Sarnia Speaks event of 2018, taking place Feb. 1 at the Sarnia Library.

As many as one in five children and youth in Ontario will experience some sort of mental health problem, according to Children’s Mental Health Ontario, which also notes that 17% of children between the ages of two and five meet diagnostic criteria for mental health problems.

“Sometimes, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can look like ADHD,” said Michelle Nelson, early years counsellor with St. Clair Child & Youth. “Kids may be acting hyper-vigilant, but they’re really looking around to see if they’re safe, because they’ve been through trauma.”

Added Allan, “We’ve had referrals for infants who’d been in a fire. Can you imagine, later on in life, what triggers may come?”

St. Clair Child & Youth sees some 350 people annually for early years mental health services, which include scheduled consultations (for ages 0 to 6), workshops, a Circle of Security parent group, anxiety groups, feelings literacy & regulation groups, and counselling.

For Caroline, (whose last name won’t be used) the agency and its programs were a godsend. She’ll be speaking at the event about her own experiences, including how St. Clair Child & Youth helped her grapple with some difficult behaviours expressed by her young step-grandchildren, placed in her care several years ago.

“What I learned is that the meaning of trauma is simply not feeling safe,” she said. “We needed to go back to square one and nurture them; saying those things that are so obvious but they need to hear, ‘you are safe; you are fed; you are loved.’”

She hopes her experience will resonate with audience members and remind people that ‘we don’t know other peoples’ stories.’

“When I hear about kids who are ‘bullying’ my heart breaks to think about what that child might be going through at home. It goes so much deeper, and we are missing it,” she said.

“Parents and caregivers are the biggest influencers in a child’s life, and we are all in this together.”




What: Sarnia Speaks: Early Years Mental Health

When: Feb. 1, at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Sarnia Library Auditorium

Details: Event is free and open to the public

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