Wheeler Awarded $2.5 Million Federal Grant to Support Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health

Wheeler Clinic Bristol

Wheeler received a five-year federal grant in the amount of $2.5 million to serve families in Hartford, whose infants and children age birth to 12 have experienced trauma, and are at risk for, show early signs of, or have been diagnosed with a mental illness or Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). This grant is only one of 10 awarded nationally. 

NAS is group of conditions caused when an infant withdraws from certain drugs, such as opioids, that he or she is exposed to in the womb before birth. Infants with NAS experience withdrawal symptoms and are more likely to have seizures, respiratory complications and low birth weight than babies without NAS. Long-term outcomes of infants with NAS include behavioral and developmental problems.

Funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the grant will include an array of elements, including workforce development, outreach, screening, and direct services.

“This program will provide young children and their families with treatment and education to address their mental health needs, including harm associated with exposure to pre-natal substance abuse,” said Melissa Mendez, LCSW, IMH-E, director of Early Childhood Programs, Wheeler. “We also will provide educators, mental health and early childhood professionals with training, tools and education to address trauma-based mental health needs among the populations they serve.”

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy applauded SAMHSA for awarding an Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Program Grant to the Wheeler.   “This is exactly why I worked so hard to write the Mental Health Reform Act. People in Connecticut know how important childhood mental health treatment is, and grants like this will go a long way in treating and developing children with mental illness. Think of how many adult lives could have been improved or even saved if only they had received the counseling and treatment they needed at a young age.”

Integrated with services already provided at Wheeler’s Family Health and Wellness Center in Hartford, the program will provide a continuum of early childhood services to identified children and their families.  The full scope of services will include promotion and outreach activities to promote the importance of child development screening and assessment, and healthy family relationships; prevention/early intervention activities including screening, assessment and referral for  primary care services through Wheeler’s Hartford Family Health & Wellness Center and in-home support for families identified as at-risk; intervention/ specialized treatment services for infants and children age birth to 12 with mental health needs, with a specific focus on infants born with NAS; and workforce development in the areas of NAS, toxic stress, and trauma.

Program objectives include:

  • Provide trainings designed to enhance the workforce that serves children, age birth to 12, who exhibit early signs of developmental disabilities, trauma, and/or mental illness, including NAS.
  • Establish additional evidence-based trauma-focused home visiting models (Child First-NAS and ARC) in Hartford to improve developmental and mental health outcomes for children, age birth to 12, diagnosed with NAS and other developmental and mental health challenges.
  • Enhance health outcomes for young children and families in Hartford through collaboration between the neonatal care unit at St. Francis Hospital and Wheeler’s Hartford Family Health & Wellness Center.
  • Provide prevention and early intervention-focused community outreach to increase parent knowledge of child development, health literacy, and access to community resources.
  • Establish a Healthy Steps program within Wheeler’s Hartford Family Health and Wellness Center’s pediatric practice to provide developmental, social-emotional and behavioral screening to children age birth to three during well-child and other visits.

There is a growing epidemic of NAS in Connecticut. NAS hospitalizations more than doubled from 137 in 2003 to 384 in 2014 with a cost of care more than seven times higher than that for a traditional hospital stay after birth. In addition, opioid use in Connecticut has grown significantly in the last four years, seriously increasing the risk of children born with NAS.  Last year, Connecticut is now among the top 10 states with the highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths, with 1,038 overdose deaths in 2017.


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