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Every time Doctor Irene Mazer walks into a Sheltering Arms Parent Group, she sees circles. In fact, she insists on them.
As one of Sheltering Arms’ Mental Health Consultants, her presence meets the needs of everyone from toddlers and moms in our Early Head Start programs, to Early Childhood Education staff wanting to think outside the crayon box. All of them find resources and connection through Dr. Mazer’s mental wellness work. That term, “mental wellness,” is key, according to Sheltering Arms’ Early Head Start Director, Joanny Ruiz. “We really don’t say ‘mental health’ much, anymore. We say ‘mental wellness,’ because that’s something you can maintain – something we all deserve. Dr. Mazer says it begins with being seen.”
So desks are pushed away, chairs are shifted, and groups don’t begin until everybody can see each other. No one resists, according to Mazer. “I remind them they’d insist on their own kids understanding the difference between squares and circles.” In fact, they flock to her room. “All I have to do is say ‘Dr. Mazer,'” Ruiz observes, “and they come.”
In this South Bronx community where one mental health worker serves every 851 residents (versus one for every 169 residents only blocks away in Manhattan), circles like these matter. Sheltering Arms’ work is ahead of the curve – with a Bronx community school partnership and Dr. Mazer’s programming – but the challenges keep pace. Just when low-income families face toxic stress levels that demand the most care, they have the hardest time getting it. “Their option is the hospital – a very crisis-focused model. That framework is often related to violence – not so friendly to families,” Mazer observes.
Mayor Di Blasio’s fresh prioritization of $850 million for mental health services that include the emotional development of preschool kids couldn’t have come too soon. On the heels of a stark city report (eight percent of high school kids have attempted suicide, and 73,000 children feel hopeless in any given month), it also follows a sweeping study linking childhood mental illness and poverty. ” Challenges like those especially tax Dr. Mazer’s families, most of whom are undocumented. Last year only one could be referred for outside services: “They’re doing their best and need help.”
Circles, individual work, and home visits change the conversation. A single mom with four kids lets go of seeing her 12 year-old, as the “man of the house.” Parents once frozen by poverty and language barriers powerfully advocate for toddlers with developmental delays. Adults who felt “victimized by the system” become peer mentors – one of Mazer’s most hopeful outcomes. “Then it’s no longer about providers and clients; it’s about community and enhanced self-esteem. They have so much to gain from each other.”
The result is a kind of cross-generational “Mental Wellness for All” movement with the following components.
In addition to “the clinical part – the Depression Scales,” Mazer reminds home-visitors and teachers that “unless you include all the children, you’ll never engage moms fully.” She’ll brainstorm with staff on how to help a single mom, infant, and toddler navigate a six floor walk-up to get services. A swaddle for the newborn and a stroller from Mazer’s own basement for the toddler (“to keep her occupied”) are transformative. “The little girl is very happy with her doll in the stroller. They’re out all the time!” Mazer and Ruiz also are prone to spontaneous planning sessions, the most recent of which will add music as a way to enhance Early Head Start (“Got it!” Ruiz commits. “I’ll call it ‘Language and Literacy Enhanced Through Music.'”).
Mazer is almost gleeful describing parents “becoming resources to each other. We pretend we’re at the dinner table, sharing challenges and good things from the day. I start with mine, so they know I’m serious.” One opens up about a child’s developmental delays for the first time. Another – an undocumented immigrant who once thought she had no rights – advocates for more special education for her child. “We made space for her to share in a very dignified way. I was really moved. I thanked her. She beamed about that.”
Beyond depression measures and home visits, Mazer gives time. A recent home visit to a pregnant mom revealed the presence of another girl – two-and-a half years old. “This child’s presence has to be included. So we play. I find out what life is like for her.” Mazer also has introduced infant massage to her families, to help parents bond with their babies and even positively affect infant hormones controlling stress and crying.
She helps families of children with developmental delays clear the hurdle of Early Intervention cut-off dates to access critical special education and support services. She finds educational and therapeutic services to develop care giving in parents. We’d say she’s leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but Mazer’s too busy rolling on the floor and teaching families to play for that to be accurate.
“It’s a less-medicalized process,” for Mazer. For mothers in Sheltering Arms’ post-partum groups, however, it’s more than a process; it’s a way in. They seek individualized counseling more readily, after working with her, because their interest in bonding is peaked.
So while it’s true that Mazer’s work advances Sheltering Arms’ work, it’s more apt to say she moves us in circles.
“After all,” explains Mazer, “I don’t work with papers. I work with people. A circle makes us peers.”