MOMS (Mental Health Outreach for Mothers) is a multi-neighborhood, community-driven partnership that is developing interventions to meet the mental health needs of single mothers in at-risk neighborhoods. Based in New Haven, Connecticut, the project tests the hypothesis that combining basic needs services with mental health and economic security services for mothers will decrease stress and increase parenting capacity.
Mothers everywhere face complex challenges as they strive to raise children. In New Haven, over 1,000 mothers report that these challenges most commonly involve: (a) a mother’s ability to meet her family’s basic needs, (b) stress, and (c) social isolation. These factors can strain parenting capacity, making it difficult for mothers to provide their children with the secure, reliable relationships that are integral to preventing adverse childhood outcomes.
The Theory of Change
This project tests the hypothesis that improving mothers’ mental health and economic security will reduce parenting stress and result in vastly improved outcomes for their children. The MOMS team also believes that for low-income mothers, lasting poverty alleviation cannot occur without attention to mental health needs that may impede mothers’ ability to seek and sustain stable employment. To improve the outcomes of mothers and children, MOMS finds ways to engage mothers who are either disinterested or unable to engage due to competing priorities such as work, school, or neighborhood chaos. Read more about how theories of change guide program design and evaluation.
Intervention: The “How”
Over the next 10 years, utilizing the existing infrastructure of the MOMS Partnership, the team will work with the State of Connecticut and Frontiers of Innovation (FOI) to intervene around mental and behavioral disorders, stress reactivity, and executive function in mothers. The MOMS team’s goal is to develop intervention strategies that improve parenting capacity and, ultimately, child health, development, and achievement on a citywide level.
Kia Levey, project director of the MOMS Partnership, explains the project’s focus on helping the adult caregivers in children’s lives and how this impacts the larger community.
The role of “Community Mental Health Ambassador” (CMHA) is at the heart of this model. These women are neighborhood mothers who are peers both of the people being served and the service providers. FOI investment has been used to hire a project director for MOMS, connect the project to other experimental models, and begin a case study of the CMHA role. The study will explore MOMS’ community engagement work through the lens of the CMHA role, and will address issues related to CMHA functions and skills as well as the structures, resources, institutions, and ongoing adaptation that are essential to their work and successful outcomes.
MOMS is also creating a manual for the CMHA model, and has developed an app that connects new mothers and uses a motivational reward system to promote healthy mother-infant interaction, social connectedness, and community engagement. Other experimental components include social capital building, stress management classes based on group-based cognitive behavioral therapy, workforce readiness, and video coaching (FIND).
What We’ve Learned
The goals of the MOMS Partnership are continually informed by information and input from more than 1,200 mothers across New Haven through a confidential questionnaire/interview.
“[What stresses me out is] taking care of a growing child without enough money, food, supplies to get by.”
The questionnaire asks mothers about their sources of support, goals, and challenges they face as they raise their families, what supports and services they find useful as moms, and what they would like to have available to their families. To date, the questionnaires have been conducted by New Haven mothers who were hired and trained by the MOMS Partnership to be Community Mental Health Ambassadors. So far, mothers have reported that the MOMS Partnership can help them raise their children, manage their stress, and meet their goals.
From the questionnaires, we have learned specifically that:
Providing a basic necessity like diapers is a huge stress and financial relief for low-income mothers.
Services need to be made available in places where moms are already going and where there is no stigma, like supermarkets.
Having community members serve as ambassadors for services helps with recruitment and retention of mothers.
Building a social network for mothers is hugely beneficial because, even in crowded inner cities, mothers report feeling socially isolated.
The New Haven MOMS partnership includes: The Diaper Bank, All Our Kin, Clifford Beers Clinic, the State of Connecticut Department of Children and Families, the Housing Authority of New Haven, New Haven Healthy Start, the New Haven Health Department, and the Yale School of Medicine.