Rep. Katie Dempsey

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, chairs the five-hour inaugural session Thursday of the House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social and Emotional Health.

Infant mental health is a real thing, a range of experts told a House study committee Thursday — and it may be one of the most important things in life.

“Why are we talking about babies? ... The first three years represent the time of the greatest and fastest brain development,” said Jamie Colvard of the nonprofit Zero to Three.

A million new neural connections are created every second, she noted, and “a child’s early experience determines how that development takes place.”

All babies experience some stress, Dr. Veda Johnson said, but a loving and stable family acts as a buffer. Without that insulation, however, the stress can be toxic, leading the brain to produce too much cortisol.

Elevation of cortisol at a very young age delays brain connections that are forming and disrupts some that have been made, Johnson said. Pediatricians test for adverse conditions, she said, but ... then what?

“If you can’t treat the parents, it really doesn’t help much to treat the child in isolation ... When we’re talking about solutions, we have to talk about all solutions. It won’t all be through legislation, but a large part of it is,” Johnson said.

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, chairs the House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social and Emotional Health. Other members are Reps. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock; Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers; Robert Dickey, R-Musella; and Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.

In a nearly five-hour inaugural session, they heard repeatedly — from the perspective of doctors, a judge, caregivers and advocates — that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

“If we don’t intervene early, they’re going to end up in a higher-need situation,” said Erica Fener-Sitkoff, a clinical psychologist and director of Voices for Georgia’s Children.

Fener-Sitkoff spoke about the behavioral health services available for children and showed a short video, “Four Pathways of Access,” that highlighted the gaps in state coverage where they often fall through the cracks.

Dempsey said the committee would delve deeper into closing the gaps, to ensure consistent care across agencies, in future sessions.

“The risk (in waiting) is that as they hit middle school, the adults become less important in their lives,” said Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker.

During her 30 years on the bench, Walker said, she’s seen how a lack of social and emotional health in children, a sense of isolation, can lead to compensatory behavior.

Substance abuse, vandalism, sexual conduct and joining gangs — for “a feeling of family and a feeling of power” — become ways to hide their internal dysfunction, she noted.

“The brain does have the plasticity to change by positive intervention ... but we can’t just focus on the children. Services must include families and caregivers,” Walker said.

Dr. David O’Banion is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Marcus Autism Center. He said his focus is on trying to prevent “the inter-generational transmission” of family dysfunction.

He told about the Perry Preschool Project, a 1960s experiment that showed targeting disadvantaged children from birth to age 5 with programs to enhance social and emotional development affects their quality of life.

A later study by Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman showed a 13% return on investment in those programs — in terms of educational attainment, income and criminal activity — into adulthood.

O’Banion said the improved outcomes were passed down to those children’s children, helping to break the cycle of poverty.

“There’s also a generational transmission of the benefits ... We do have the opportunity to make investments that have multi-year and multi-generational impacts,” he told the study committee.

Dempsey said she intends to listen to the day’s testimony again, via the archived video, because there is so much information to absorb. She urged everyone with a professional or personal interest to follow the committee deliberations, which are livestreamed on the Georgia General Assembly website.

“There is so much to dive into ... We need a lot of people paying attention to this subject,” she said.

The committee will meet four more times through Nov. 30. It’s tasked with reporting their findings, including any recommendations for action, to the 2020 legislative session.

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