The Day – East Lyme Youth Services makes mental health a priority

East Lyme — The city continues to roll out an enhanced mental health program using $75,000 in federal coronavirus pandemic relief assistance.

Department of Parks and Recreation director Dave Putnam, who oversees youth services, said there has long been a need for a licensed clinical therapist and substance abuse prevention co-ordinator. alcohol in the department. “We’ve been trying to get it through the budget for a number of years,” he said.

But it wasn’t until millions in federal funds were sent to the city that the money was earmarked for a situation that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We thought it was very important for mental health, especially for our young people, to get through these times of COVID-19,” Putnam said.

Under former head coach Mark Nickerson, the board of selectors allocated the first $1.6 million of $5.46 million for what were identified as immediate needs. In September, the board approved $55,000 for the Prevention Coordinator and $20,000 for the Registered Therapist.

To access the new services, residents can call the Department of Youth Services at (860) 739-6788.

The clinical therapist hired through the Old Saybrook-based Courage Project is expected to start later this month for 10 to 15 hours a week, according to Putnam. Project Courage is a drug addiction recovery center offering services that include school-based counseling, according to its website, projectcourageworks.com. Putnam said the East Lyme School District is currently contracting with the organization for its drug and alcohol counselor – “so we’re looking to tie into that.”

But he said the youth services therapist will be “more than a drug and alcohol counsellor”, outlining an approach that takes into account the wide range of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and behavior problems. The therapist will assess teens and young adults and refer them to the appropriate services — and will hopefully be available to provide ongoing counseling if a particular situation warrants it, according to Putnam.

He said his goal was to keep the position “flexible” to meet the needs of children in the city.

“It’s to complement what they do in high school, but also maybe open it up to younger kids who might need it or even the 18-24 age group that sometimes gets left behind,” did he declare. noted.

He said he expects some children will be referred to the new counselor by the school system and the police department — and by word of mouth.

Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton, in an email sent through administrative assistants, said the city’s new position will provide additional services to students and families beyond the school day, weekends and during the summer months when school staff are not available.

“This is a great report for support services for those in need,” he wrote.

Some students “have struggled returning to school this year both mentally and behaviorally,” he said, adding that the district has worked over the past six months to “provide consistent support.” as required.

In high school, restrooms were the backdrop for behavioral incidents ranging from vandalism to violence. In September, a social media trend popularized on video-sharing platform TikTok led to some students removing paper towel dispensers and soap dispensers from walls and flushing some down the toilet, resulting in a clogging.

Subsequent incidents in the girls’ bathroom included verbal and then physical assault shared on video via social media. The situation underscored racial tensions at the school that students say have been ignored by the administration.

East Lyme Police Chief Mike Finkelstein hailed the youth services therapist job as an important way to resolve issues that don’t rise to the level of an arrest or court appearance. City’s Juvenile Review Board – and also as a way to keep little problems from getting worse.

“Going into the ground floor is certainly more beneficial than waiting for a crisis,” he said.

Sometimes children face family or personal issues that do not warrant a psychiatric evaluation or a visit from the state’s 211 mobile emergency response service, but which could benefit from education, support and advice for the whole family.

Finkelstein said the new position also helps address the growing awareness that mental health issues profoundly affect many facets of society, including crime.

It’s a problem amplified in the wake of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, as social justice advocates seek to change governments’ spending on policing. Some recommend that social workers become more involved in non-emergency issues typically handled by law enforcement.

“We say the police are not the only solution, and the more options we have, the better off we will be,” Finkelstein said. “Working with agencies and having that capability is huge.”

The prevention coordinator position was filled in late October, according to Putnam.

Sarah Firmin brings a master’s degree in community psychology from Central Connecticut State University and postgraduate certificates in counseling and addictive behavior to her new role in the Department of Youth Services, she told The Day in a interview. Its full title encompasses prevention, mentoring and wellness.

She said she previously worked as a family recovery clinician at United Community and Family Services, where she treated clients at risk of having their children removed from their homes due to substance use. She said her new role is to provide advice, support, education and increased awareness about substance use and mental health, especially among teens and young adults.

“What we’re seeing is a decrease in substance use, which is great, but then we’re seeing an increase in mental health needs,” Firmin said. That means some teens and young adults get by using different substances to deal with anxiety and depression, she said.

This week, Firmin’s work included a stop at middle school to work with Leaders Club students on a program for National Drug and Alcohol Awareness Week March 21-27. She also leads the department’s Youth Coalition, where she works with adult volunteers and four high school students.

Firmin has already secured two grants, including a grant of approximately $1,400 from the Local Prevention Council to address vaping and marijuana use and $4,000 to target the opioid crisis. She said the State Opioid Response grant will allow for a larger prescription drop box at the police department, a movie night with a documentary on opioid use, and training opportunities — including how to use the Narcan overdose antidote – for school personnel and community members .

Current first manager Kevin Seery said the intention was to fund the positions until the end of 2026 with pandemic relief funds. A committee appointed early in Seery’s administration is evaluating applicants for $3.8 million of unspent US bailout dollars.

Like Putnam, Seery said the importance of mental health has only become more critical since the pandemic. It’s a problem the first coach faced when he was a Connecticut State Trooper until his retirement in 2015.

“You could just see the need,” he said. “Especially at those developmental ages where they need those extra resources, we will have them available.”

The message for children in East Lyme is that there are resources, according to Firmin.

“They are not alone,” she said. “We are here to help and work together.”

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