Children born in poverty often experience negative consequences over the course of their lives and pass on the same disadvantages to their own children.
Now a new initiative introduced at Yale aims to break the cycle of poverty by focusing first on the mental health needs of parenting and pregnant women.
Elevate is a new policy laboratory stemming from the successful work of the Mental health Outreach for MotherS (MOMS) Partnership, based in the Yale Child Study Center and Department of Psychiatry. Elevate is joining forces with Women’s Health Research at Yale(WHRY) to apply science to the creation and spread of evidence-based interventions for socially and economically disadvantaged families in partnership with government agencies.
“Breaking the cycle of poverty is difficult, but we know that when we can improve the mental health of parents, children do better at school, in their emotional connections, and in their general ability to function that they then carry into adulthood,” said Megan Veneema Smith, associate professor of psychiatry and in the Child Study Center and founder and director of MOMS. “And when children do better, so do their parents — psychologically and economically.”
About 40 million Americans live in poverty, including one in every five children. Poorer children are at higher risk for a wide range of negative outcomes, including developmental delays and dropping out of school.
In addition, more than 46 million American adults have experienced a mental illness within the past year, including the mothers of 55% of children living in poverty.
Research demonstrates these problems are linked, and now Elevate, in collaboration with WHRY, will develop a new approach bolstered by careful research. By linking policy initiatives to outcomes supported by data, this new endeavor will cultivate and expand fruitful partnerships with government agencies to help families across the country.
“At Elevate we argue that programs that bond and intertwine mental health elements with social services will improve the effectiveness of existing programs by simultaneously boosting mental health outcomes for parents and children, and subsequent earnings for parents,” Smith said. “We do this while bridging separate theories and bodies of evidence, such as developmental science and workforce development, and psychiatry and economics. The more we can learn and share with our partners, the more we can help.”
The program will build upon the successes of MOMS, which has produced rigorous evaluations showing that 76% of mothers participating in its programs experience a decrease in depressive symptoms and a 67% decrease in parenting stress. Consequently, their children attend an annual average of six more days in school compared to children of non-participants, and part-time employment nearly doubles.
“Empirical data tell us that women largely take charge of health care decisions in the home,” said Dr. Carolyn M. Mazure, director of WHRY. “If we can reach women in need and provide interventions proven to improve their families’ lives, we can interrupt the cycle of poverty to help women now while fulfilling our obligations to younger generations.”
At an event to launch the policy lab on May 6, Elevate Executive Director Katherine Gaztambide said that mental health is not just a health issue, but also an issue that affects housing, education, jobs, and wages.
“Mental health is a poverty issue,” Gaztambide said. “Elevate presents an opportunity to improve mental health, stabilize the rocky waters in families’ lives, and work with families so they can take advantage of the opportunities we all deserve.”
The launch event featured talks from many of the policy lab’s partners, including national organizations and governmental agency representatives from Vermont, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C. Elevate will serve as a hub, working with government partners to align policies and funding streams to provide needed services at locations that are accessible and where parents are comfortable. Examples include supermarkets, public libraries, and laundromats.
In addition, Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of The Clinton Foundation and a leader of its Too Small to Fail initiative advancing early brain and language development, has pledged her support to the effort. At the launch event, she participated in a discussion with Smith moderated by Dr. Kelvin Chan, director of The Robin Hood Foundation’s Fund for Early Learning (FUEL).
“When mothers have less depression or anxiety, they have more energy, capacity, and time to engage with their children,” Clinton said. “And if they have that time, they use that time — to read to their kids, to talk to their kids, to sing to their kids, to hold their kids, to establish those connections that are so hugely important to children’s health and also to the mother’s own mental health and well-being.”
Elevate’s partners also include Mental Health America, Scholastic Education, FrameWorks Institute, the Kresge Foundation, and the Robin Hood Foundation.