Georgetown University Certificate Program for Entry-Level Mental Health Workers Helps Build Community-Based ERH Support Networks

By Dominique Charlot-Swilley, PhD; Arrealia Gavins, MEd; Gail Avent, JD; and Christina Morris, MEd, SPE

To successfully partner with parents and caregivers and ensure that they have the support and resources they need to form healthy relationships with their babies and toddlers, practitioners must center families’ needs and meet them where they are. Community-based organizations (CBOs) serving children and families are uniquely positioned to provide accessible Early Relational Health (ERH) supports to families in trusting, non-stigmatized, and culturally relevant settings — particularly for families in communities that have been treated inequitably and unjustly by systems of care, including the healthcare system. 

With the critical need for mental healthcare in Washington, D.C.,  the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies; Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development; MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, Department of Psychiatry; and the Early Childhood Innovation Network (ECIN) collaborated to develop the ten-month Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) Family Leadership certificate program

Based on a model of task shifting — an approach recommended by the World Health Organization as a way to make more efficient use of health resources and increase the agility of health systems — the program seeks to create new partnerships and pathways for extending relational health supports into communities. It accomplishes this through education and training to increase the number of entry-level mental health workers who live in the communities they serve and have shared lived experiences. With a firsthand understanding of the complex, interrelated challenges of their local communities, the program participants learn additional skills that build localized, community-based ERH support networks. 

Since the program’s launch in fall 2021, 50 participants have completed the certificate program. Students who enroll in the program are often parents themselves. They serve as frontline community health workers, focusing on the social-emotional and early relational health of children and their families. They provide social support and guidance, mental health and early childhood development education, preventive screenings, and referrals to mental health professionals as needed. They also advocate for families impacted by inequitable conditions.

Participants enthusiastically describe the program’s benefits. As one participant explained: “I acquired an invaluable body of knowledge through the Georgetown University family mental health course. The course not only introduced me to a subject matter of which I had little familiarity, but it also stimulated and acutely sharpened my awareness of the stable and nurturing environment we must create in the early childhood arena.”

Another key part in helping mental health workers meet caregivers where they are at is taking into consideration their social, cultural, and racial identities and relationships. Building upon mental health workers’ shared lived experience with the community, the certificate program applies an anti-racist approach to teaching and learning. In turn, the students of this program can form even stronger and more trusting relationships with the families in their communities. It also explains how organizations can progress from being a trauma-informed practice to a healing-centered one — a workplace environment that prioritizes healthy and healing relationships, reflection, growth, and prevention. 

“The program has helped me strengthen my knowledge on the topic of mental health. It enlightened my sense of care and compassion in caring for our children,” reported a participant. “It raised my awareness of bias and discrimination, and to be purposeful in promoting respect for one another, and celebrating diversity and inclusion.”

Practicum and apprenticeship placements at healthcare, child welfare, and early learning sites allow students and graduates to make an immediate impact on the lives of families. Certificate program graduates go on to provide direct mental health support services to families in health, education, and other community settings.

The certificate program is illustrative of ERH in action. It builds the capacity of communities from within to better serve the mental and relational health needs of children and families, while simultaneously providing professional development and job placement opportunities for parents of young children in divested communities.

The certificate in IECMH Family Leadership is offered in an online flex learning environment and is open to anyone with at least a high school or general education diploma with lived experience. Learn more about the certificate program.

Dominique Charlot-Swilley, PhD, is Assistant Professor, Senior Research Policy at the Center for Child & Human Development, Department of Pediatrics at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, and the Director of Provider Wellbeing for the Early Childhood Innovation Network (ECIN). 

Arrealia Gavins, MEd, is the Director of Early Learning for the ECIN with MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. Gavins has more than 28 years of experience supporting early education programs focusing on educational leadership, staff, and family wellness, and more. 

Gail Avent, JD, serves as the Executive Director and founder of the Total Family Care Coalition, a family-run organization located in Washington D.C. Avent is a community leader on the ECIN team with the Children National Health System. 

Christina Morris, MEd, SPE, is a teacher, mentor, and education professional who is best known for their work with families with children with disabilities and coaching infant toddler teachers in Washington, D.C.