THE BLOG
09/18/2015 05:36 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2016

Untreated Traumatized Teen Parents in Anytown, USA

Can you imagine being a young homeless mother, who lost custody of her baby due to her untreated mental illness caused by childhood trauma, which results in self medicating with opioids? I just described a subgroup of young parents in my community discussed at a Healthy Families Massachusetts advisory board meeting I attended on September 17.

A well-informed person knows that socioeconomic status in America is largely generational. Of course, there are always individual success stories. However, the question as a policy maker and a citizen of my community that I have is: what if anything can be done to help decrease the challenges that young parents face and break that cycle?

Any first-time parent knows that the challenges of parenthood are daunting. New parents are simultaneously blessed and stressed.

However, young parents are a vulnerable population in America. Becoming a young parent even under the best of circumstances too often creates hardships with regard to financial independence, educational achievement, with employment and perhaps even a supportive family and friends; these are all challenges that young parents - almost always mothers - must overcome.

At the meeting, we spent a great deal of time talking about mental illness in this population and its effect on positive parent-child attachment. Homelessness and mental illness are issues that I spend a lot of time working on as a State Representative.

Finding a mental health provider for individual or family therapy is manageable. However, individuals who carry a diagnosis of mental illness often have a three-to-six-month wait to get the appropriate treatment; because of this wait, they suffer longer.

I was concerned about the manner in which untreated mental illness undermined the ability of parents to develop a healthy attachment with their baby. The first year is a critical period in development that will shape the future of that child's life, for better or for worse. Research shows, that after birth, there is a small window of opportunity for a healthy attachment to take place between a parent and baby. A healthy attachment is the best remedy to break that multi-generational cycle of poverty, neglect and abuse.

How did the mother described in the opening paragraph become homeless? Having an untreated mental illness (caused by trauma) resulted in her losing custody of her baby. Having lost custody of her baby, she lost her housing assistance provided because of her baby. Additionally, her cash assistance has ceased along with the educational vouchers necessary to become self-sufficient.

The advisory board meeting I attended was with Healthy Families Massachusetts (HFM). HFM provides free voluntary home visiting services to first-time parents under the age of 21. This is an evidenced-based program which reduces the risk of child abuse and neglect, as well as reducing the many obstacles a young parent would face. A healthy parent-child attachment is critical to the well-being of the baby. Every parent receiving services from the HFM program wants to be a great parent; they would not seek out the program if they did not. The goal of HFM is to break-down the barriers and to provide parents access to the services they need to become the best parents they can be for the optimal health and wellness of the baby.

While these young parents are not representative of my community, they are a part of it. These are our daughters, sisters, cousins, neighbors and friends; they are the people we know and people we don't know. Young parents should not be judged and mental illness is not a choice. Without support or treatment the multigenerational cycle will continue.

Compassion is doing what we can, when we can, for who we can. That is the American way.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. He can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.