By Brenda Brissette-Mata
Dalia Smith of Saginaw remembers when her son was a baby, inconsolable and constantly crying. Like many young parents, she just didn’t know how to cope. Some days she was so overwhelmed she didn’t feel like she could get out of bed.Through family centered treatment in Saginaw County, Smith learned coping skills.
“I leaned how to play with my baby. I learned how to deal with him when it seemed like he would never stop crying. And when he was 18 months old and starting to exhibit aggressive behavior, I knew how to get him help,” she said.
Smith and her son are one example of the many Saginaw County families being helped by the work of Project LAUNCH.
Michigan Department of Community Health is one of only 24 sites selected nationally for Project LAUNCH, a federally-funded grant program of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health) is focused on promoting wellness in children from before birth to age 8.
Saginaw was selected as a pilot community to test different LAUNCH strategies. The project is serving children primarily in the city of Saginaw, with some efforts extending to other communities in the county. Lin Dann, project director of Michigan LAUNCH said one of the reasons Saginaw was selected was because of the early childhood system building work being done in Saginaw.
“We have a strong Great Start Collaborative in Saginaw,” Dann said. “And we have a lot of community partners working together to provide services that research has shown to be effective.”
Project LAUNCH has five primary strategies:
1. Screening and assessment in a range of child-serving settings
2. Integration of behavioral health into primary care settings
3. Mental health consultation in early care and education
4. Enhanced home visiting through increased focus on social and emotional well-being
5. Family strengthening and parent skills training
In Saginaw, the overarching objective is to integrate social emotional wellness into every aspect of a child’s health so that Michigan’s children are healthy inside and out, from head to toe.
“It’s about making sure all children are prepared to learn when they arrive at school,” Dann said.
A survey of Michigan kindergarten teachers noted that teachers found at least 35 percent of students arrive at school unprepared to learn. Previously undiagnosed chronic health conditions are one reason, as is impaired social emotional skills. Being able to get along with other children in a classroom, good behavior in class and the ability to follow directions, so-called “soft skills”, are examples of social emotional behavior that can impact a child’s ability to learn.
Results from multiple studies estimate that 10 percent of young children suffer from behavioral challenges that inhibit learning. Among children in poverty, the numbers are two or three times higher.
Mary Mackrain, infant and mental health consultant for the Michigan Department of Community Health and the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, said that while many understand that social-emotional problems impact education, the state’s educational and health systems are also impacted.
“We know that one in five children have mental health challenges and of that number, only one in five get the help they need,” Mackrain said.
“Approximately 75 percent of children with diagnosed mental health disorders are seen by pediatricians. That means we have kids with mental health challenges being seen by their primary care or pediatric provider and these doctors are reporting that they often times don’t have enough knowledge about resources or strategies that are available.”
To address the second strategy, Project LAUNCH is providing a mental health consultant to work part-time in local doctor’s offices and providing training for screening tools that help identify challenges.
“If a parent voices a concern, a physician identifies a concern or if a screening tool shows the child scored out of normal limits, help is available,” said LAUNCH’s Dann.
The third strategy of LAUNCH is addressed with the Child Care Enhancement Program. In this case, a mental health consultant works specifically in child care settings. The consultant can do individual consultation, meet with teachers if there is an issue with a child, or meet with parents and share information about help that is available.
Kelly Albers of Freeland found help through the program for her son Evan, who was exhibiting aggressive behavior in child care, thanks to a co-worker who is a member of the Saginaw County Great Start Collaborative. “I really started to feel supported,” Albers said. “I met with her several times and we worked on so many things; things I could do with Evan at home to coordinate with the stuff he was working on in child care.”
Albers said Evan was diagnosed with developmental delays, in particular a speech problem. “I learned a lot of his behavior came from being frustrated that nobody could understand him,” Albers said. Work with a speech pathologist made a remarkable difference in six short weeks.
Dann said LAUNCH has used funds to expand and enhance the Birth-Through-Five program home visitation already in place in Saginaw County to address the fourth strategy. LAUNCH also provided direct funds to expand services in the city, to hire additional staff and expand the number of families that receive home visitation services. As a result, in the past year home visitation in Saginaw County has increased 38 percent.
Finally, LAUNCH is offering Family Strengthening and Parent Skill training to reduce children’s behavior problems and increase social competence at home and at school. The program works with families for 16 to 20 weeks.
“We want to give the parent help, too,” Dann said. “Let them learn skills and ways of adapting that will work. Parents can get what they need for their families and for themselves. What’s coming out of the Great Start initiative and out of Project LAUNCH is that there is more access to social emotional support and consultation in Saginaw County.”
LAUNCH is working on many collaborative partnerships at the state and local levels. Members of the Great Start System team advise the project at the state level and the Great Start Collaborative in Saginaw serves as the advisory board for the local level.
“We’re helping to build the early childhood system – working on sustainability,” Dann said. “The hope is that after the five year grant these strategies will last for many more years, and spread to other parts of the state.’
So far it’s working for parents like Dalia Smith and Kelly Albers.
Albers son is in preschool and while she says some days are better than others, she feels informed and empowered.
“I know that he needs the right amount of sleep and it’s up to me to make sure he gets it. Some days I wanted to pull my hair out, but it’s better now. I found Great Start from a friend at work who gave me a flier that put me on the path to finding the help we needed.”
Smith, who continues to work with her son through Project LAUNCH, also is helping others by working as a parent support partner for the Association for Children’s Mental Health through Saginaw County Mental Health.
“I’m now part of the treatment team,” Smith said “If families need service, I help them by providing training and education about system navigation. I break it down for them, help them understand how to get through the system to get the help they need.”
Smith said she often thinks back to the days when she couldn’t get out of bed, when her inconsolable child seemed to never stop crying and she felt powerless to help. “I know how hard that was and I know how hard it was for me to get help, to even know where to look for help. My son is doing better, we’re doing better together. I know there are hard times and then, better times. Now, my job is to make sure that other families know there’s help available and how to find it.”
Find more about Project LAUNCH at www.projectlaunchsaginaw.org.