NORWALK, Conn. – Addressing grim post-pandemic mental health assessments of Norwalkers young and old, the Common Council Public Safety & General Government Committee solicited a comprehensive review of available mental health services.
A 2021 Norwalk Partnership study showed that 32% of middle school students and 46% of high schoolers have experienced depression. LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) teens were found to be most at risk of depression and suicidal thoughts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced similar data nationwide: 37% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the year prior to the June 2021 study.
More recently, Westport-based behavioral health organization Positive Directions found a 6% year-on-year increase in the number of respondents saying they lacked access to mental health services. While noting that “we got a very tiny response rate,” Positive Directions Prevention Director Margaret Watt said Thursday, “Those reporting extreme symptoms doubled from 7% to 14%. That’s anecdotal. But I just wanted to point out that, you know, things haven’t necessarily gotten better, right? Trauma sometimes takes a while to make its impact felt.”
Watt was one of nine public health professionals presenting detailed information to Council members Thursday, a discussion planned in response to constituent concerns and also because May is Mental Health Awareness Month, said Chairwoman Jenn McMurrer (D-District C) and Community Services Committee Chairwoman Dominique Johnson (D-At Large). The goal was to “really educate the public about what resources are available both on the city-side and the school district-side, because mental health affects so many people,” McMurrer said.
“Things are happening, and we cannot be silly, for a better lack of word, that it can’t happen in our backyard. We want to serve our children … because they’re hurting and grieving on so many levels,” Norwalk Chief of Social Services Lamond Daniels said, emphasizing the need for collaboration. “We want to get everyone to start talking about why social emotional health is important… This is happening and it is only going to get better.”
Norwalk Public Schools Counseling & Social Services Education Administrator James Martinez said, “One of the biggest ‘aha moments’ … that I had when I entered into this role, is how much real, meaningful work, and the great impact that can be made, when collaboration takes place.”
Martinez said that Norwalk-based Triangle Community Center has provided “about 24 slots a week for mental health, and wellness checks for not only not only youth, not only our students, but our teachers, our staff, and families.”
Survey data forming the basis of a “logic model” built last fall by youth advocacy coalition Norwalk ACTs “not only informed our process, but also really helped to lead it,” ACTs Director of Equity and Collaborative Action Denique Weidema-Lewis said. “We are a data driven entity. So we love data and really want to use that to really be able to form the action plan.” Martinez characterized Norwalk ACTs as the “backbone” as “maybe 100 nonprofits work toward the same goal.”
Many references were made to “family navigators,” a role funded by a Dalio Foundation grant as part of a Connectivity Initiative launched in 2020. First appearing with Altice-funded internet connectivity, family navigators expanded their responsibilities upon learning that homes without a way to connect to remote learning had other needs as well. Human Services Director AnaVivian Estrella cited the example of a family who needed help after an adult member died from COVID-19 complications. While they had never needed social services before, they now faced financial difficulties, so family navigators lined them up with rental assistance, workforce development, grief support, and help in applying for government benefits for the first time.
“That just gives you a glimpse of how easily someone’s life can get extremely complicated,” Estrella said. From one day to the next, they never had to ask for help. And then all of a sudden, they needed help from five different agencies…We have to make sure that the people that need those resources can make those connections.”
Norwalk’s Health Department has three family navigators, two community resource specialists and 1.5 youth care coordinators. “They all pinch hit for each other,” Assistant Director of Health, Community Health Theresa Argondezzi said. Family navigators serve around 400 families, Estrella said.
“While this is grant funded, we do have some operational support budget to do this,” Martinez said. “But it’s important that you know, both us Council members and our taxpayers know, that this is how your taxes are being used.”
Collaborations also include Family Children’s Agency, Kids in Crisis and The Den for Grieving Kids, said Martinez, calling this “instrumental” in the wake of the tragic house fire that killed 7-year-old Summer Fawcett this month.
NPS has just begun regular communications with the Social Services Department, Daniels said, describing a new “bat phone” between him and Assistant Superintendent of Schools Rob Pennington. Daniels also expects mental health services leadership to begin meeting regularly with the superintendent’s cabinet, “so that we as a provider community can wrap our arms around the school district and use what you are hearing to build that system.”
“Especially with the year after COVID, a lot of kids just need more of our support,” said Norwalk Partnership co-chairwoman Diamond Sead, who also works with the Human Services Council. “Sometimes it is just talking in the office… sometimes it can be a crisis, or it could be something as simple in a way of saying re-socializing and getting back into the classroom.”
She noted that American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds will enable her agency to eliminate a wait list by extending its services this summer. “We’ll continue seeing kids throughout the summer at this coordination center. And even in that process, we’re able to refer them to Families and Children or Child Guidance if the family needs holistic services. And if it’s just one on one with the child, then they’ll stay seeing the provider.”
Estrella said she and Martinez plan a “relaunch,” to “formalize” relations between the district and the City, creating a “very structured pipeline.”
Watt presented a comprehensive list of mental health hotlines, available on the Norwalk Partnership website. Board of Education member Kara Nelson Baekey asked about efforts to get that information to families.
Daniels said, “COVID forced us to create a new blueprint of how we as organizations interact…What we’ve learned through the family navigation program, and through the district. Not everyone has access to internet and readily available.”
“It’s all hands on deck, right?” Norwalk ACTs’ Weidema-Lewis said. “So the Health Department is working closely with all of the other folks on this panel and lots of other people in the community to figure out what resources are available. And then we have several staff members and many of our partners have staff members who are out there in the community.”
It’s all “a work in progress,” she said. “We have wonderful providers within our community. We talk amongst ourselves all the time. And it’s really an opportunity for us to enhance the work that we’re already doing together.”