This Amazing Program Offers Parents Mental Health Checkups During Routine Child Visits

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Dr. Rahil Briggs as Dr. Rachel Briggs. We apologize for the error.

Doctor examining newborn girl with a stethoscope
Image source: Thinkstock

It’s your baby’s well-child checkup and things are going smoothly. Your baby has been weighed, the doctor has listened to her heart and lungs, peeked in her ears and throat, and has officially given her a clean bill of health. You’re preparing to gather up your diaper bag to leave when the doctor turns to you and asks, “I see your baby isn’t sleeping very well. How are you doing with that?”

You might be taken aback for a moment, but when you stop to think about it, you might realize that you’re actually not doing very well … at all. Having a medical professional inquire about your mental health provides you with the opportunity to open up about symptoms you’ve been experiencing, so you can get the help you need.

Does a checkup for you as a mom during your baby’s care visit sound too good to be true? Well, it could very well be the way of the future — and for good reason. The national HealthySteps program is aiming to change the healthcare model to include parental health and well-being right alongside their babies. And it only makes sense, right? You are in and out of the doctor’s office constantly with babies anyways, so why not include parents in the visit, too?

Healthcare models under this program offer a more comprehensive wellness experience for both parents and children through health screenings, counseling, and onsite treatment. The program has been associated with positive outcomes, such as fewer childhood behavioral concerns, more appropriate parenting, and increased parental security and attachment.

Dr. Rahil Briggs, director of pediatric behavioral services at Montefiore Medical Center and the associate professor of pediatric psychiatry of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, tells Babble that the way the program works at their offices is simple:

Before a child’s appointment, caregivers are given a health assessment screening questionnaire that they usually fill out in the waiting room. The pediatrician will then review the screening tool, and based on certain information provided, connect the caregiver with a HealthySteps specialist (usually a social worker, nurse, or psychologist) who can provide further assistance and resources right then and there at the same appointment.

“We’re trying to make it as seamless as possible,” Dr. Briggs says. The goal is to change the model of healthcare to include all aspects of health, from behavioral, mental, and emotional well-being, along with physical, at each and every visit.

Dr. Briggs adds that there are two basic parts to the program: the first being more preliminary issues, such as sleep disturbances or sibling rivalries, and the second is for families that are more at-risk. For the second leg of the program, a HealthySteps specialist makes a special point to attend every appointment the child has and provides additional screening and assessment tools. Parents can take the American Academy of Pediatrics’ ACEs screening tool to determine their risk level.

Any parent who scores a 4 or above (on a scale to 10) is invited to participate in the more intensive track, which offers resources such as parental mental health treatment and even home visits. In some situations, they even provide childcare for older children if the parent or care provider is ready to initiate treatment as soon as possible.

But no matter what a family’s situation might be, Dr. Briggs explains that the focus of their program is on giving parents access to more help in all aspects of caring for their children.

“Every parent has questions about their newborns and about their toddlers,” Dr. Briggs notes. “Every parent would appreciate the chance to get some of the questions answered by a trained professional who’s really an expert in parent-child relationships.”

Dr. Briggs also notes that part of the beauty of integrating parental mental health into their child’s well-child or sick visits means that there is plenty of time to follow up on any potential concerns. Maybe you weren’t ready to fully delve into a postpartum depression discussion at your baby’s newborn checkup. But if four months have gone by and you’re still struggling, the fact that the pediatrician will check in with you again can make all the difference in getting proper treatment.

“Sometimes it takes a year for a family to really face that a child might have autism or a mother might have depression,” she adds. “We honor that everyone gets to a place of readiness at their own speed.”

Overall, Montefiore’s program has been well received by parents and families alike. Last September, they rolled out a universal ACEs screening, which resulted in the screening of over 22,000 individuals. The tool also includes screening during pregnancy for mothers who may be more at-risk for mental health concerns following birth. As a whole, the program is leading the way into greater conversations about the importance of mental health, not only among families, but with doctors as well.

“I think sometimes we get worried like, ‘Oh that’s not what they came here for — they came here just for a flu shot,’” Dr. Briggs explains. “But no, they came here for their health. And health and mental health are inextricably connected.”

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