East Lyme youth services makes mental health a priority
East Lyme — The town continues to roll out an enhanced mental health program using $75,000 in federal coronavirus pandemic relief aid.
Parks and Recreation Department Director Dave Putnam, who oversees youth services, said there's long been a need for a licensed clinical therapist and drug and alcohol prevention coordinator 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 town that money was earmarked for a situation only exacerbated by the pandemic.
"We thought it was very important for mental health, especially of our youth, going through these COVID-19 times," Putnam said.
Under former First Selectman Mark Nickerson, the Board of Selectmen allocated the first $1.6 million out of $5.46 million on what were identified as immediate needs. In September, the board approved $55,000 for the prevention coordinator and $20,000 for the licensed therapist.
To access the new services, residents can call the Youth Services Department at (860) 739-6788.
The clinical therapist contracted through the Old Saybrook-based Project Courage is set to start later this month for 10 to 15 hours per week, according to Putnam. Project Courage is a substance abuse recovery center offering services that include school-based counseling, according to its website, projectcourageworks.com. Putnam said the East Lyme school district currently contracts with the organization for its drug and alcohol counselor — "so we're looking to piggy-back on that."
But he said the youth services therapist will be "more than a drug and alcohol counselor," describing an approach that takes into account the wide range of mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression and behavioral issues. The therapist will assess teens and young adults and refer them to the appropriate services — and hopefully be available to provide continued counseling if a particular situation warrants it, according to Putnam.
He said his goal is to keep the position "flexible" to meet the needs of kids in town.
"It's to supplement what they're doing at the high school, but also maybe open it up to younger kids that might need it or even the 18- to 24-year-old age group that kind of gets left behind sometimes," he said.
He said he expects some kids to 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 new town position will provide additional services for students and families beyond the school day, on weekends and during the summer months when school staff are unavailable.
"This is an excellent carryover for support services for those in need," he wrote.
Some students "struggled upon their return to school this year both mentally and behaviorally," he said, adding that the district has been working over the past six months to "provide consistent support" as needed.
At the high school, bathrooms have been the backdrop for behavioral incidents ranging from vandalism to violence. In September, a social media trend popularized on the video sharing platform TikTok led some students to pull paper towel dispensers and soap dispensers off the walls and throw some of them in toilets, which led to clogging.
Subsequent incidents in the girls' bathrooms included verbal and then physical assaults shared on video through 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 welcomed the youth services therapist position as an important way to address problems that don't rise to the level of arrest or an appearance before the town's Juvenile Review Board — and also as a way to prevent smaller problems from escalating.
"Getting in on the ground floor is certainly more beneficial than waiting until there's a crisis," he said.
Sometimes kids are dealing with family issues or personal problems that don't warrant a psychiatric evaluation or a visit from the state's 211 mobile crisis intervention service, but could benefit from education, support and guidance for the whole family.
Finkelstein said the new position also helps address the increased awareness that mental health issues profoundly affect so many facets of society, including crime.
It's a problem amplified in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer, as social justice advocates look to shift how much governments spend on policing. Some recommend that social workers become more involved in nonemergency issues typically handled by law enforcement.
"We talk about police not being the only solution, and the more options we have, the better place we'll be in," Finkelstein said. "Working with agencies and having that ability 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 Youth Services Department, she told The Day in an interview. Her full title encompasses prevention, mentoring and wellness.
She said she previously worked as a family-based recovery clinician at United Community and Family Services, where she treated clients at risk of having children removed from their homes because of substance use. She said her new role is to provide guidance, support, education and increased awareness around substance use and mental health, especially among adolescents 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 are coping by using different substances to help with anxiety and depression, she said.
This week, Firmin's job included a stop at the middle school to work with students in the Leaders' Club on a program for National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week from March 21 to 27. She also leads the department's Youth Coalition, where she works with adult volunteers and four high school students.
Firmin already has secured two grants, including a roughly $1,400 Local Prevention Council grant 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 featuring a documentary on opioid use, and training opportunities — including on how to use the overdose antidote Narcan — for school staff and community members.
Current First Selectman Kevin Seery said the intent is to fund the positions through the end of 2026 with pandemic relief funds. A committee appointed at the start of Seery's administration is evaluating candidates for $3.8 million of unspent American Rescue Plan dollars.
Like Putnam, Seery said the importance of addressing mental health has only become more critical since the pandemic. It's a problem the first selectman encountered back when he was a trooper with Connecticut State Police 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'll have them available."
The message for kids in East Lyme is that there are resources out there, according to Firmin.
"They're not alone," she said. "We're here to help and work together."