CCF puts focus on child mental health

Up to 20 percent of children in the U.S. experience a mental disorder in a given year. That’s one out of five children. Early diagnosis and intervention can make the difference between healthy development and a life plagued with lingering challenges.

FIU’s Center for Children and Families (CCF) is leading the way in research and evidence-based options to treat and manage childhood mental disorders.

“CCF is doing exciting and groundbreaking research in child behavior disorders,” said Suzanna Rose, executive director of the School of Integrated Science and Humanity and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “The center is one of FIU’s largest sources of federal research grant money, with its faculty currently holding a combined total of $35 million in research funding.”

Focusing on family and school-centered treatment, the center offers year-round services and treatment for children and their families in an interdisciplinary clinic. This center’s signature Summer Treatment Program has treated 625 children since the center was founded in 2010. The intensive, therapeutic program focuses on helping children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other behavior problems to improve their problem-solving, academic and social skills. Weekly training sessions also are provided for parents, teaching them how to cope with their child’s behavior and assist them in their child’s progress.

“The greatest thing about the Summer Treatment Program and the greatest thing for us to see is how happy and enthusiastic our son is coming here,” said the mother of an 8-year-old boy enrolled in the program. “We can see his growth and we see him feeling better about who he is.”

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CCF Director William E. Pelham, Jr., a leading authority on child mental health, has brought together an elite team of researchers to FIU, leveraging both existing faculty members and recruiting other leading researchers from around the country.

“In the course of three years, 27 faculty have become affiliated with the center, including 14 new hires to the university,” Pelham said. “Their interests span everything from typical development in children to multiple aspects of mental health.”

Psychology professors Anibal Gutierrez and Maricel Cigales oversee the Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) program at CCF. Through the program, FIU psychology students are providing one-on-one therapy to children under three years of age who have or are at risk for developmental delays or disorders, including autism.

“We help children learn to adapt in a preschool classroom by designing our schedule in a similar manner to that commonly used in preschool and kindergarten classrooms,” said Logan McDowell, a doctoral student and assistant director of the program.

The center’s work doesn’t stop with ADHD and autism. Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children. And about 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18. If left untreated, children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences and engage in substance abuse.

As part of FIU’s Child Anxiety and Phobia Program (CAPP), associate professor of psychology and CCF researcher Jeremy Pettit specializes on the course of depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviors over time. His research includes interpersonal and cognitive factors that contribute to the onset, maintenance and recurrence of these behaviors. CAPP addresses the emotional and behavioral characteristics of children who are experiencing anxiety and phobic behavior.

Researchers at the center also are exploring general cognitive development in children. Shannon M. Pruden, assistant professor of psychology, is researching the use of spatial language – words such as big, tall, circle, curvy – by children 14 to 46 months and the longterm implications for their development. Psychologist Lindsay Malloy leads a team of researchers studying child cognitive and social development, and provides information and tools for teachers, social workers and legal professionals who work with children every day.

To date, CCF has served more than 1,000 families. This past year, the center also provided consultation and training services for more than 300 teachers from Miami-Dade County Public Schools working with children with behavioral and academic difficulties. This summer, the school board authorized Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and his staff to consider special program options that would offer better services for children with ADHD in Miami-Dade schools. FIU’s Center for Children and Families is equipped and prepared to offer a number of resources – including its evidence-based behavior treatment models – for the development of a county-wide program.

“Our goal at the center is to provide excellence in research, education and service regarding mental health in childhood,” Pelham said. “Not only serving and involving families in South Florida but also conducting research that informs the nation and the world about the nature, causes and treatment of mental health problems in childhood and adolescence.”

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