HARTFORD – In a press conference on Wednesday, Republican lawmakers announced several proposals to expand access to mental health care for children and new mothers, from mental health liaisons in schools to greater awareness of postpartum mental health to increased support for nonprofits in the face of looming state workforce retirements.
State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, called the lack of mental health services a system-wide problem in the state of Connecticut.
“We have a disjointed, disconnected system of care here,” said Somers. “There’s no continuum of care. People search for days to try to find help. We don’t have enough providers. There’s no coordination between our local schools and the healthcare community in an acute setting. So we really need to start to look at this holistically.”
The need for more mental health services in Connecticut has been a focus over the last weeks not only for state legislators, but also for union representatives and state workers. Earlier this month, state employees and advocates held a virtual conference highlighting the lack of availability of mental health services for children, particularly at state-run facilities like the Solnit Center in Middletown, and for other underserved populations such as recently incarcerated people, Spanish-speakers and people struggling with addiction.
On Tuesday, workers at the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services held a press conference announcing that the state’s in-patient programs for people suffering from addiction to opioids and alcohol had effectively closed because of a lack of workers to operate them.
Somers said that the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center reported 3,100 children coming into the Emergency Room for behavioral health issues in 2021, with an average wait time of three days.
She described her own district in eastern Connecticut as “a desert” for mental health services. Somers said that when families call her for help, she often has to find them services in Rhode Island or Massachusetts or “someplace hours away from their family.”
And the consequences of being denied services can be devastating.
Antonia Edwards, a resident of Manchester who spoke at the conference, said that her eight-year-old grandson, Norvon Anais Edwards, was killed in August 2020 by his sister. Edwards said that the children’s mother was a domestic violence victim, and that the children were kidnapped by their stepfather.
After the kidnapping, said Edwards, it was clear that her granddaughter needed help, but she said those services were refused for reasons she described as being linked to implicit bias and racial disparities.
“After the kidnapping happened, we tried to get services for my granddaughter …they made a mockery of us,” she said. She added that her grandchildren were diagnosed with Munchausen Syndrome by-proxy, a rare mental health disorder in which a child’s guardian imagines disorders afflicting their children.
“My grandson didn’t die because my granddaughter killed him. My grandson died because nobody provided services to her, and it was clear that she was crying out for help and we were, too,” she said.
“Our shredded healthcare safety net”
Somers said that changes need to be made to help schools cope with the increased need for mental health services, further exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We have one school psychologist, maybe a social worker, with lines and lines of children waiting to come see them, especially after COVID,” she said. “There’s this increase in anxiety… the little children, they don’t even know how to describe what anxiety is.”
One proposal that Somers outlined was to develop a temporary position of Family Care Coordinator in the local school districts. The coordinator would act as a liaison, working to connect families with services and resources for their children. Somers said this could help offset some of the workload of school psychologists and social workers, who she said are already overburdened trying to support students with special needs.
“It would be a lifesaver for the school districts,” she said.
Somers said she wanted to use coronavirus relief funds to pay for the position so that school boards would not have to try and come up with the necessary funds.
Other ideas included requesting that UConn oversee a study on the impact of social media on the mental health of children and teenagers and forming a working group of experts that would discuss how to make more services accessible for children.
Another part of the proposal involves providing more services for women who suffer from anxiety and depression after giving birth. Republicans said they wanted to require doctors to screen women for mental health challenges after giving birth, and to educate doctors and patients about how to recognize the signs of postpartum anxiety or depression.
“For many people, they don’t realize that postpartum depression does not show up on day two when you come home with the baby,” said Somers. “It’s weeks later, when everyone’s gone home and you’ve been up all night and your baby’s crying and not eating — that’s when depression can set in.”
Republicans also said that they wanted to expand coverage by the state’s insurance carriers to permanently include telehealth services, and expand the state’s HUSKY program to reimburse licensed social workers with master’s degrees – a change that Republican legislators said would help address the shortage of mental health workers in the state. They also proposed a program that would reimburse college tuition for mental health workers who agree to work in Connecticut for a minimum time period.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, chair of the Public Health Committee, said that many of the Republican proposals were already being considered by the committee. Steinberg said he was glad to hear that the Republicans were in support of these ideas.
“Suffice it to say that the pandemic has focused every legislator and everybody in the state on our shredded healthcare safety net,” he said. “And we have an opportunity now to repair and restore it in a variety of ways.”
Steinberg said that even the federal funds would not be enough to make up for a decade-long underinvestment in healthcare. He also pointed out the challenge of finding healthcare workers and incentivizing them to come to Connecticut.
“We’re competing with every other state when it comes to finding healthcare providers across the spectrum,” he said. “It’s an incredibly competitive marketplace where our ability to compete on compensation and cost of living create extra challenges for us.”
“A two-tiered system”
In addition to the challenge of finding qualified workers, Michael Patota, CEO of the Child and Family Guidance Center in Bridgeport, said that nonprofits like his often have a hard time retaining highly qualified staff – a problem connected to the salaries these organizations can offer.
“The challenge for nonprofits is that we cannot afford to pay the same rate that the state or other institutions like hospitals can pay,” said Patota. “Many of our staff are leaving to go to a higher paid position.”
Patota said the discrepancy between nonprofit and state compensation is clear.
“We can pay probably about $60,000 a year for a bilingual, bi-cultural, master’s level clinician,” he said. “You can go to [the Department of Children and Families] with a bachelor’s degree and make probably close to $70,000 a year.”
State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford said he thought the large number of retirements anticipated in state agencies this June could provide an opportunity to rethink how the state provides services by shifting more of the work and the funds to the nonprofits.
“When you’re looking at human services, you have a two-tiered system and the private non-profit delivers 75% of the services at twenty-five percent of the cost. The state does 25% of the services at 75% of the costs,” he said.
Somers added that Connecticut is unique as a state in having both state agencies and state-supported nonprofits providing the same services.
“In other states, they use the state agency to sort of filter everything to the nonprofits, but we kind of compete with ourselves,” said Somers.
Steinberg told CT Examiner said he agreed the nonprofits need more funding.
“We have seriously underfunded our nonprofits. It’s a big problem that we need to address,” he said.
However, he said he doesn’t think the answer is to take all of the services out of the state’s hands.
“I do believe that the state does deliver certain services well,” he said. “I think we need to evaluate on a situation by situation basis what combination of public and private would optimize quality access and reasonable costs.”
Edwards also said during the press conference that she believed it was important to recruit a more diverse body of mental health professionals.
“We never see black doctors. We never interact with black doctors in the hospital. That’s very important. It’s very important that you have Hispanic doctors or doctors that are linguistically competent … That’s how people open up, by seeing people that look like them,” she said.
Edwards said she wanted to see changes that would make sure that no other parent would have to go through what she and her family had suffered.
“My grandson will have been dead for two years [in] August, 2022, and nothing has been done. And our situation has gotten worse. And I’m just begging you guys, please, put the money into the infrastructure and get the services for these kids — the ones that you do see, and the ones you may not see.”