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Mental Health Support for Parents Helps Kids

Lamia Soghier

The health of a child often hinges on the health and well-being of the parents. This is especially true for families in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), says Dr. Lamia Soghier, NICU medical director at Children’s National Hospital.

“These parents are under extreme stress,” she says. “They've just had a newborn, they've been expecting to go home with a healthy infant or the mother was expected to have a normal, healthy pregnancy and suddenly goes into preterm labor. It can be traumatic.” Some parents cope well, she says. Others have profound difficulty.

Screening parents is a powerful tool to identify those who need help. “What many think of as ‘post-partum depression’ is actually a spectrum that includes anxiety, bipolar and other mood disorders for new moms and dads. We screen as many parents of infants as possible through our NICU. Otherwise many parents suffer in silence,” Dr. Soghier says.

Recently, that screening process helped identify a mother who showed signs of needing help. “We were able to bring a psychologist to the bedside for a few sessions,” Dr. Soghier says. “Later, when the mom felt that stress return, she was able to recognize the triggers, remember the steps the psychologist recommended and calm herself down. This system impacted her emotional health and therefore her quality of life.”

Research conducted at Children’s National show that about 45% of parents leaving the NICU have some form of post-partum depression symptoms. “We've developed a program to screen as many parents as possible,” she says, “in our emergency department and during follow-ups with social workers and community health workers. Parental mental health screening also continues during routine checkups for babies at 2, 4 and 6 months old.

“This program is about leading with the human touch and having a team that is able to surround a family with the proper response to postpartum mood and anxiety disorders,” Dr. Soghier says. “It’s about supporting families in better ways for healthier children.”