Urgent Centers for Kids’ Mental Health Crises Open in CT

August 2, 2023

This article by Ginny Monk appeared in the CT Mirror on August 2, 2023.

Children in mental health crisis can now go to one of the state’s four urgent crisis centers to get help rather than risking an hours-long wait in the emergency room for care, officials said Wednesday.

Wednesday marked the grand opening of The Village for Families and Children‘s urgent crisis center in Hartford. The centers are designed as walk-in, outpatient clinics for kids who are having behavioral health crises such as thoughts of suicide or self-harm, depression, anxiety or out-of-control behavior, among other mental health issues.

The openings, which have occurred over the past few weeks across the state, are the result of 2022 legislation that offered a wide range of support for children’s mental health. Mental health was a defining issue for that legislative session amid heightened reports of behavioral health problems among youths.

“What we’re doing over here is transformative, not only for The Village. It’s transformative for the state,” said Galo Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of The Village.

The other centers are at Yale New Haven Hospital in New Haven, The Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut in New London and Wellmore Behavioral Health in Waterbury.

At Wednesday’s opening ceremony, Gov. Ned Lamont recalled the daily reports on the calls to the state’s 211 line over the early months of the pandemic. He noted a shift in questions to the center.

“Those first couple of months, it was: ‘Am I going to die?’” Lamont said. “And then as time went on, it was calls more likely to be from young people saying: ‘How am I going to survive?’”

As the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic began in Connecticut, health care providers reported a growing crisis as more children began showing up at emergency departments. Many were suicidal, out of control, or were dealing with eating disorders.

This resulted in overwhelmed emergency departments and long waits for care for the kids who urgently needed help.

The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing mental health problems among the country’s youths. It was difficult for many to access care, and kids whose lives were disrupted with school closures struggled. In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on a national youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

The state legislature passed three sweeping bills that aimed to address mental health care in schools and early childhood as well as fund mental health services in medical centers, educational facilities and in the community. In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on a national youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Department of Children and Families has $141 million per year in recurring state and federal funding for behavioral health services and another $74 million in one-time funding allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act, DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes said.

Other agencies such as the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Department of Social Services manage additional money for behavioral health services, Dorantes said.

“As a state, we are committed to making sure that the children that we serve are going to be happy, they are going to thrive, and that they are going to know that when they are experiencing crisis, and fear and anxiety, that we’re here to prop them up,” Dorantes said.

Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, noted that the centers need more than the one-time COVID relief funding to be effective.

The centers have up to 72 slots, according to a Wednesday press release.

“The need is enormous,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin. “And the gap to this point has been gaping.”

“It’s hard to be on a list when your child is in crisis right in front of you. For me, this building today represents prevention,” Exum said. “It represents that if my child is having an issue, and I see that child is escalating, and I don’t know what to do, I can bring my child here as a parent.”

At the peak of the pandemic, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center was seeing up to 50 kids per day. Pre-pandemic, it was closer to 20 to 25 daily, but many of those would be best treated in the crisis centers, said James Shmerling, president and chief executive officer at the medical center.

Tenesha Oates, a Hartford-area resident, had to take her teenage son to the emergency room not long ago. He went from school, and Oates says she thinks he just needed de-escalation techniques that weren’t possible at the school.

After she spoke at the lectern, her son snaked an arm around his mother’s shoulders for a quick hug while they waited for the ceremony to conclude so they could take a tour. Rather than the sparse, clinical feel of a hospital, the urgent crisis center’s treatment rooms have brightly colored, soft furniture.

They’re equipped with fidget toys and each room has its own mural — sunflowers in one, a jungle scene in another.

“This would have been much better,” Oates said.

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