Social work faculty member earns early career award for children’s mental health research

Samantha Brown
Colorado State University’s School of Social Work researcher and Assistant Professor Samantha Brown has earned a prestigious early career development award that will help her study sleep in relation to children’s mental health.

Update May 2019: Dr. Brown has also been awarded a K01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Her study will be titled: “Parent-Infant Co-Regulation of Sleep and Physiology in Families with Neglect.”

The Levin award supports Dr. Brown’s work in understanding how early adversity shapes the health and development of children experiencing psychosocial risk, and translating this knowledge into the development and testing of family-oriented intervention.

If you’re in your 20s, you decide to stay out late at that party. In your 30s, you may have a new baby in the house. In your 40s, you burn the candle at both ends to get that long-awaited promotion at work.

Nearly everyone knows what it feels like to lose sleep, and how it affects attitude and performance at school, home, or work. Yet most people can choose to be over-tired, knowing they have the opportunity to “catch up” on sleep later.

But what if you’re a child at risk of maltreatment, living in a low-income family, and you never get a good night’s sleep? Does losing sleep let stress “get under your skin” and affect your development? Can you ever “catch up” or do sleep patterns become part of shaping larger outcomes in your life?

In CSU’s School of Social Work, addressing these types of questions is becoming the life’s work of Assistant Professor Samantha Brown, the recipient of the 2018 Victoria S. Levin Award for Early Career Success in Young Children’s Mental Health Research.

Brown’s research under the Levin award will focus specifically on the ways parent and infant sleep affect one another and how sleep impacts the body’s functioning over time, and in a larger sense may affect child mental health and family dynamics, in families with and without neglect.

This work dovetails with initiatives laid out in the Grand Challenges for Social Work, the flagship program of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, to champion social progress powered by science. Dr. Brown focuses on three Grand Challenges: Ensure healthy development for all youth, close the health gap, and stop family violence.

Looking at sleep as a tool to help at-risk children

“I will be primarily looking at families who are newly involved with child welfare agencies, monitoring parents and their infants’ sleep,” said Brown, “and then looking at the ways sleep might impact their well-being and the family’s functioning as a whole.”

Brown will also look at at-risk families. “If there is some identified risk for maltreatment but the family has not yet been involved in child welfare, including some home-visitation already in place, I can make comparisons to see if sleep is potentially a predictive factor or can exacerbate risk,” added Brown.

The long-term goal for Brown is to identify ways children and families can be helped through a focus on sleep as a newer intervention for social workers. “If it is a risk factor in both groups, then how is it shaping children and families’ outcomes?” said Brown. “I’m looking to discover the mechanisms for change.”

Developing a social work lens for sleep research

As a doctoral student and post-doctoral researcher, Brown focused on stress physiology and sleep, and how these factors may be a part of child abuse and mental health, as well as the role of parent-child interactions in buffering children from negative consequences of early adverse experiences.

“I had developed and implemented a mindfulness parenting program for families involved in child welfare,” Brown said, “and then I was in a lab that primarily explored stress physiology in low-income families, as well as families who experienced maltreatment.”

“One of the outcomes was to reduce parenting stress, but I wanted to get at the more mechanistic pieces. I incorporated different measures—cortisol was one—as well as parent-child observations to learn how stress is manifested in day-to-day interactions,” said Brown.

Brown had researched the relationship between cortisol and sleep patterns and learned there could be a connection with how the body reacts in different contexts. “Cortisol will peak in stressful situations and there is also a peak after awakening,” Brown said. “So I recognized how important sleep was in the context of understanding stress.”

Brown sees healthy sleeping habits as a potentially more impactful target for social workers to use in practice. “Sleep affects everybody, so my work is coming more from a public health perspective to identify some factors that can be targeted in all families,” said Brown, “and also be less stigmatizing because it is a basic human need.”

About the Victoria S. Levin Award

Administered by the Society for Research in Child Development, the Victoria S. Levin Award for Early Career Success in Young Children’s Mental Health Research was established to honor and carry forward the focus of Victoria S. Levin’s life’s work in scientific research addressing young children’s mental health. Honoring Levin’s 30 years of distinguished service at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the award aims to heighten the chances of early success in achieving NIH funding for developmentally-informed research that addresses the early foundations of children’s mental health and well-being.

About CSU’s School of Social Work

With fully-accredited on-campus and distance programs for undergraduate and graduate students, Colorado State University’s School of Social Work exists to advance social, environmental, and economic justice, promote equity and equality, alleviate oppression, and enhance human health and well-being across local and global community systems. The School of Social work is part of Colorado State University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.