The opening line from an award-winning video (see below) produced by two Ryerson University psychology students says it all when it comes to the importance of mental health: “It’s not possible to talk about health without including mental health.” Approximately 1 in every 5 Canadians experiences a mental health issue at some point in their lives and the quality of early childhood relationships can both buffer against and contribute directly to such problems. The video, which won the students a scholarship from the Psychology Foundation of Canada, is about the role of attachment in infancy and physical health outcomes later in life.
‘Attachment’ refers to a system that is hard-wired into humans and other primates that seeks to maintain emotional closeness and physical contact with parents and other caregivers. An obvious physical benefit for very young primates is that proximity to a caregiver greatly increases the chances of surviving infancy. However, from a longer-term perspective, these early, emotional connections contribute to brain structures that enable the individual to be resilient to emotional stressors over the entire lifespan, an important feature considering that issues like anxiety and depression, which can affect both mental and physical health, often begin at times of high stress and significant life events.
Attachment manifests through a caregiver’s responsiveness to an infant’s emotional needs and bids for connections. When infants feel uncomfortable emotions, like sadness, fear and anxiety, they reach out to their caregivers. When caregivers consistently ease that discomfort, children feel soothed and learn that there is a safe haven in the caregiver that the infant can return to when feeling upset. Over time, repeated experiences like this become encoded within a young child’s brain as mental models that say ‘I can handle this,’ ‘I’m not alone in this,’ and ‘I am a worthy person.’ Interestingly, over time, this consistent and positive attention from the caregiver also contributes to the development of brain structures that enable the child to regulate its own emotionality in times of stress and upset. The link between attachment, mental health and overall health come from research that consistently shows that infants who have less certain (also known as ‘insecure’) attachments to their caregivers are more likely to experience colds, have more frequent visits to family physicians, and are more likely to experience depression and withdrawal, anxiety and physical disease, compared to infants with more certain (also known as ‘secure’) attachments to their caregivers.
Child-health experts featured in the video advise that attachment can be enhanced by even small changes in parenting. For instance, they suggest that parents can greatly boost their child’s mental wellbeing and physical health by protecting them from stressors that the child is too young to handle, by striving to enjoy the child and to express that enjoyment both implicitly and explicitly, and by working to ensure that the backbone of the family remains strong by also attending to the caregiver’s own needs and the needs of the parents’ own relationship(s).