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Do The Roots Of Mental Health Issues Lie In Early Childhood? []


Rahil Briggs, a child psychologist, is walking the corridors of the Pediatrics department at the Montefiore Comprehensive Healthcare Center. We’re in the South Bronx, New York. It’s one of the poorest urban areas in the country. Crying babies don’t faze Briggs. She looks serene — like she’s just finished a yoga class.

Briggs says babies’ brains are “sticky.” “Their brains are disproportionately receptive. So whatever we throw sticks. That’s why they can learn Spanish in six months when it takes us six years, but also why if there’s exposed to community violence or domestic violence, it really sticks.”

Briggs watches both baby and parent. Does the baby look to the parent for comfort? And does the parent respond? That interaction shows her whether an infant feels secure. And when a baby feels secure? It’s far more likely their social and emotional development will be healthy. And healthy social emotional development is the foundation of mental health.

“If a baby feels safe, a baby will explore, and if a baby explores, a baby will learn," Briggs says.

What can interfere with that learning? Multiple risk factors make it more likely children could develop a mental illness later on. Divorce, neighborhood violence, poverty. So she says focusing on these children makes sense. Briggs says we know half of all children with mental illness show symptoms before they are 14. So paying attention long before they start school makes sens

[For more of this story, written by Kavitha Cardoza, go to

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