Strategic Initiatives: Human Development



by Donna Elmendorf, PhD

Donna Elmendorf, PhD is the director of the Therapeutic Community Program at the Austen Riggs Center.I am delighted to announce the launch of the Human Development Strategic Initiative at the Austen Riggs Center. The primary aim of this new endeavor is to support infant, child, and family mental health in Berkshire County, while also bringing a deeper understanding of the developmental process to the Riggs staff and patients. The Human Development Strategic Initiative will apply our relational view of early development to a community-based preventive model of care. The offerings will build on learning from our Therapeutic Community Program in which an individual is recognized, understood, and supported in the broader contexts of family, community, and society. This initiative provides an opportunity to extend the impact of our work beyond the small number of patients who have access to our intensive residential treatment through meaningful engagement in our local community. Staff and patients at Austen Riggs will, in turn, benefit from this effort as we deepen our knowledge about the impact of early adversity on the unfolding developmental process and about the importance of recognizing children’s early efforts at communicating.

Through conversations with local professionals serving the mental health needs of children and families in southern Berkshire County, as well as representatives from our local school district, we recognized the need to support new families from the very start. The Human Development Strategic Initiative’s first project has evolved as a partnership with Fairview Hospital, Community Health Programs, and MACONY Pediatrics and is guided by Riggs’ staff member, Claudia Gold, MD, a behavioral pediatrician with extensive experience in infant mental health. Community support for the project has been robust, including a gift from an anonymous donor.

In the initial phase of the project, we will provide training for maternity nurses, pediatricians, early intervention clinicians, family physicians, nurse practitioners, and home visitors to learn a new approach to helping parents recognize and respond to their newborn’s unique qualities and capacity for communication – the Newborn Behavioral Observations (NBO) system. The training will offer a theoretical framework, exposure to current research, and practical guidance for clinical intervention. As we look ahead, we will continue our conversation with local families, clinicians, and educators to identify other areas of need to be addressed.

According to Brian Burke, MD, president of the medical staff at Fairview Hospital, “The Newborn Behavioral Observations System is a remarkable opportunity for Fairview Hospital’s Maternity Unit to collaborate with The Austen Riggs Center. This value-proven program gives parents an opportunity to spend time learning about their baby's unique qualities and ways of communicating. Our specially trained maternity nurses offer individualized attention to parents and their newborns – even before the family goes home after delivery.”

Andrew Gerber, MD, PhD, the medical director/CEO of Austen Riggs, recently shared his perspective on the project: "I am excited by the potential of this important initiative to extend our work to the local community and to build partnerships with those serving infants and families." We hope this project will serve as a model for future community partnerships through our Human Development Strategic Initiative in Berkshire County and beyond. 


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