Project LAUNCH: Promoting positive mental health in the very young

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On a recent unexceptional night, a five-year-old girl hears gunshots from her bedroom. She freezes. It may be the first time she has heard that sound, or maybe the second. She starts to avoid her bedroom and fear bedtime. The girl’s mother reports to the pediatrician that her daughter is throwing tantrums and can’t sleep through the night.

“The reality is that young children are  profoundly psychologically affected by issues such as violence in the community and at home, housing insecurity and homelessness – especially when those issues affect their parents in particular,” says Emily Fischer, LICSW, director of Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health) at Boston Children’s Primary Care at Martha Eliot.

What is Project Launch?

Project LAUNCH is an early childhood mental health prevention and promotion program. Fischer and her colleagues work with kids ages 0-6 who exhibit social-emotional issues due to psycho-social stress, but don’t qualify for mental health treatment. “We try to stay focused on prevention,” says Fischer. “We’re looking to curb the likelihood that children will go on to develop more significant mental health problems.”

The program began in 2010 with federal grant funding, and in 2014, Boston Children’s – recognizing the importance and uniqueness of what Project Launch offers – began absorbing the cost.

Just in the past five years, Fischer has seen a change in the way pediatricians care for young patients. Their approach is more holistic. They are better equipped to see through a lens of young children’s mental health, so when a five-year-old girl complains of sleep issues, they think about what’s going on with her socially and emotionally and may refer her to Project LAUNCH for support.

What services does the program offer?

When a child is referred to the Project LAUNCH program, their entire family is embraced. “Our program focuses not only on the child, but the child in the context of his or her family,” says Fischer. “Helping parents feel supported has a trickle-down effect on kids.”

This support may include creating safe spaces at home, working on parenting strategies, accessing community resources, or encouraging healthy play through family-friendly programming. “We believe promoting positive mental health in families includes creating spaces where families can experience joy together safely,” says Fischer.

For Fischer, working in early childhood mental health feels hopeful and optimistic. She has always been drawn to this age group, because she sees their capacity to learn and grow, even under the toughest of circumstances. She quotes the psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who said, “Every child needs at least one person who is really crazy about him or her.” She adds that every child also needs at least one safe place to thrive—sometimes home, sometimes school, sometimes church.. And maybe for some – a community health center.

Learn more about  services at Boston Children’s Martha Eliot Health Center.