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Summit aims to build up, make revolutionary change in childhood mental health

The Utah Early Childhood Mental Health Summit held Thursday, was hosted virtually by Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox. The couple encouraged listeners to be builders, and make revolutionary change in children's lives through mental health services.
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The Utah Early Childhood Mental Health Summit held Thursday, was hosted virtually by Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox. The couple encouraged listeners to be builders, and make revolutionary change in children’s lives through mental health services. (Utah Early Childhood Mental Health Summit)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY—Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox co-hosted the third annual Ready! Resilient! Utah Early Childhood Mental Health Summit on Thursday, encouraging Utahns to be builders of “our most precious citizens.”

The first lady said she is committed to raising awareness of childhood mental health. She believes the state of Utah can make a large positive impact in the lives of Utahns by meeting the mental health needs of kids.

“When we address early needs, we are building for the next generation,” Abby Cox said. “The need is great, and now is the time to act to make sure all children have access to mental health services.”

During the online webinar, Abby Cox discussed research that shows unmet mental health needs in early years affect overall life outcomes such as rates of poverty, involvement in the criminal justice system and more.

She said strong links have also been found between poor mental health and increased amounts of social media, leading to children being involved in less social interaction and losing years of social maturity.

“We can be a leader of going upstream to address mental health,” she said. “We can ensure every child has the opportunity to thrive. There is nothing more important to us than the children of this state. Let us set them on a path forward. Let us give them the gift of a lifetime of connection and belonging.”

The governor spoke on the efforts he is making to integrate the response to the physical and mental health needs of all Utahns. One such effort was HB365a bill from March 2021 that merged the state’s Department of Health with the Department of Human Services to create the new Utah Department of Health and Human Services.


I am passionate about making sure everyone understands that mental health is just as important as physical health; they are inextricably intertwined, and we have treated them separately for far too long.

–Gov. spencer cox


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“I am passionate about making sure everyone understands that mental health is just as important as physical health; they are inextricably intertwined, and we have treated them separately for far too long,” Spencer Cox said.

The more we understand about health, health outcomes, social determinants and health disparities in Utah, the better we will be able to overcome those disparities, according to the governor.

The summit, put on by the Children’s Center Utah and the University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, had Dr. Jessica Pryce, director of the Floridan Institute for Child Welfare at Florida State University, as the keynote speaker.

“How might we as leaders compel our systems to move toward looking at the roots and foundations of our organizations,” Pryce asked the audience.

She suggests that people look at the system they are a part of, examine the foundation and decide how best to fix it, which might mean rebuilding it entirely.

She related this to her expertise in the child welfare system and how she is doing things differently because she wants different outcomes. Instead of working toward evolutionary change, which she defined as small adjustments to the child welfare system to help families, she now wants to make revolutionary change — or profound, transformational change that strengthens families.


We can ensure every child has the opportunity to thrive. There is nothing more important to us than the children of this state. Let us set them on a path forward. Let us give them the gift of a lifetime of connection and belonging.

–Abby Cox, Utah’s first lady


When working with vulnerable families, Pryce said we should empower the families to make and achieve their own goals instead of just having the child welfare system tell them what to do. She emphasized the importance of getting these families the medical and mental care they need so they can improve and flourish.

The rest of the mental health summit included the Early Childhood Mental Health Working Group, which is comprised of key stakeholders involved across sectors in childhood mental health, discussing progress and solutions to mental health issues in Utah’s children.

Tanya Albornoz, coordinator for prevention and student services at the Utah State Board of Education, pointed out how many children only have access to mental health services through school, emphasizing how important it is to have good, evidence-based practices in school-based mental health services.

Several members of the working group highlighted listening to and honoring the family’s voice to put power back into the hands of families to make decisions for their children.

Working group member Aimee Winder Newton is the senior advisor and director of Utah’s new Office of Familieswhich the governor introduced in his 2022 State of the State address.

Winder Newton said she and the governor have identified several areas where they can improve Utah’s ability to support families and make Utah the best state for families, such as:

  • More family-friendly policies for employers to implement so parents can address the the needs of their children.
  • Committing to being a trauma-informed state so services better help children who go through trauma.
  • Focusing on the impacts of social media on young kids and how to protect them through legislation.

Winder Newton shared her experience with postpartum depression, anxiety, and her son having suicidal ideation. She said she didn’t know where to go to get help when these issues arose, and this pushed her to want to improve mental health services and break the stigma around mental health issues.

“I’m excited to move forward and see how we can better improve families and their ability to take care of their children,” Winder Newton said.

Rebecca Dutson, president and CEO at the Children’s Center Utah, concluded the webinar by expressing hope that everyone listening will be builders and make revolutionary changes so we can “become champions of Utah’s children.”

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Cassidy Wixom covers Utah County communities and is the evening breaking news reporter for KSL.com.

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