Mental Health

Five Action Steps to Address Maternal Depression in Head Start Programs

While roughly 15 percent of new mothers suffer from maternal depression, the rates are much higher in families with lower incomes. In fact, 52 percent of mothers in an Early Head Start research study reported high levels of depressive symptoms.

Maternal depression interferes with a mother’s ability to be responsive to her new baby. It also makes parenting toddlers and preschoolers more difficult. Head Start and Early Head Start programs have a lot of resources available to them to address this issue.

Staff can use the following five action steps and resources listed below them to reduce the impact of depression in the families they serve.

1. Identify families in need of support through validated screening tools.

There are a number of valid and reliable screening tools to help Head Start programs identify families who may be experiencing depressive symptoms. Below is a list of commonly used tools. Many of these social-emotional parenting curricula are available for free. Remember to review the screenings completed for children of parents experiencing depression. It can affect their social and emotional development too!


2. Train staff about depression warning signs and how to talk with families.

The Office of Head Start has funded many projects that can help programs prepare staff to work with families who are experiencing depression. One of these is Family Connections at Children’s Hospital Boston. They developed a comprehensive training curriculum for Head Start staff. Below are links to additional modules and materials that can support professional development in this area. Remember that depression may look different in men and women, as well as people from different backgrounds and cultures.


Family Connections Training Modules for Staff: Introduction

This introduction provides a description and an outline of each of the four training modules. Explore this introduction to learn what is included in each workshop and find general guidelines for effective training.

  1. Training Module 1
    • The Benefits and Challenges of Engaging Parents
    • Perspective Taking
    • What Is Depression?
  2. Training Module 2
    • The Program Climate and You
    • Accentuate the Positive
    • What Is Depression?
  3. Training Module 3
    • Supporting Social-Emotional Growth
    • Strategies for Talking to Children about Difficult Issues
    • Using Reading and Circle Time to Promote an Expressive Environment
  4. Training Module 4
    • Better Communication
    • Developing a Resource and Referral Process
    • Getting the Most from the Home Visit

3. Provide reflective supervision for staff working with families who have mental health challenges.

When staff work with families who are experiencing depression or other mental health concerns, they may need some additional support and guidance from their supervisors. Reflective supervision can help staff to:

  • Gain insight into how the families' stress and depression might be affecting their own mental health
  • Maintain appropriate boundaries in their help-giving roles
  • Prevent burn-out by providing a safe place to talk about their feelings and challenges

Remember that taking care of others requires taking care of yourself!


4. Connect families with community-based treatment services.

Head Start programs provide a range of comprehensive services and supports for families and young children. But for some families experiencing mental health concerns, a referral for treatment services may be necessary. Making a good referral involves a number of steps. Staff should know which families need a more intensive level of services as well as what resources are available in the community. Programs need to have procedures in place to help families follow-up and get the care they need. Remember that it helps to have a relationship with the community agency where you are referring families.


5. Reduce stigma by promoting awareness of depression as a common and treatable condition.

Despite the prevalence of depression in the United States, there is still a stigma around mental health. Families may be reluctant to admit they are feeling depressed and be afraid to follow through on referrals for treatment. Staff can help reduce the stigma of depression by talking about mental health in the same way they talk about other physical health concerns. There are posters that you can use to increase awareness about how common and treatable depression is. Remember that Head Start plays an important role in informing parents about how important their mental health is for their children!