DARIEN — The town has decided not to move forward with a proposed partnership with Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan in a pilot program that would have offered psychiatric assessments for residents seeking mental health care.
The pilot program, which was brought before the Board of Selectman in mid-May, is set to begin in New Canaan on July 11. The hospital will set aside five 3-hour time slots each week for New Canaan residents to speak to mental health providers at Silver Hill and leave with a “comprehensive assessment” of their needs.
New Canaan has paid Silver Hill $250,000 in federal coronavirus relief funds to be part of the pilot for one year. Dr. Andrew Gerber, president of Silver Hill, told the Board of Selectmen that if Darien was willing to pay the same, the project could have been extended another year and opened to residents from both towns.
The program was one of a number of options that the town has been considering as a way to provide more mental health services to residents in the aftermath of three suicides that took place this spring, two of whom were students at Darien High School.
McNally told Gerber in an email that while there was “a high level of interest” the community “was not prepared to move forward at this time,” noting that the community was still grieving its recent losses.
In late May, the town put together a mental health task force of about 30 people that included Director of Human Services Ali Ramsteck, Heath Director David Knauf, the chief of police, a member of the Board of Selectmen, Superintendent of Schools Alan Addley, representatives from the Depot and others. Ramsteck said that experts from local mental health agencies told the group that they would need to undergo a training so they could prepare a plan for how to respond in the aftermath of suicides — known as a “postvention plan.”
McNally told CT Examiner that it would be the job of the task force to determine how to best address the residents’ need for mental health support. She also said that a partnership with Silver Hill might be possible in the future.
“We are considering many things. It’s not off the table,” McNally told CT Examiner Friday.
At the Board of Selectmen meeting in May, opinions about the potential partnership were divided. Ramsteck spoke in support of the pilot program as a way for residents to get greater access to mental health providers. But McNally and Selectman John Zagrodzky said they were not convinced the program would solve the need for available mental health providers once Silver Hill had completed an assessment. Members of the Board of Selectmen also expressed concern that there was no way to know how much demand the Silver Hill program would generate.
Ramsteck told CT Examiner that at present, trying to get an appointment with a therapist was still the number one challenge for many people. She said that she has been working on creating a list of providers on the town webpage that are currently taking new patients, which they will continue to update.
“If someone decides they want help, waiting three weeks is not going to help. They need to see someone within a couple days,” said Ramsteck.
The town is also using federal coronavirus relief funds to run a series of eight-hour courses to teach residents how to approach someone having a mental health crisis. Additionally, Ramsteck said, the local mental health provider Newport Academy is offering a free, week-long parent support group to Darien residents beginning July 6.
Ramsteck said she still believed the Silver Hill partnership could be a good idea at a future point.
“I feel like any mental health focus and easy accessibility would be tremendous,” said Ramsteck.
But she said that she felt Darien had joined at the end of a process already started with New Canaan, and that the town hadn’t had the opportunity to fully understand the proposal.
“I don’t think that anyone — this is my perception — felt that they had enough information,” said Ramsteck. “There were a lot more questions, and then the multiple tragedies happened … our focus was on dealing with the community in the very immediate crisis.”
Gerber told CT Examiner that if Darien wanted to partner with the hospital in the future, there would be opportunities, although they would look different from the current pilot.
“It’s a time of mourning for [Darien]. They’ve been through so much,” said Gerber. “I think it’s great that they are really thinking through these things, and I hope that when they’re ready, we’ll get a chance to work together.”
Ramsteck said she anticipates doing more educational events on suicide prevention in the fall. She said the experts suggested that the town wait four to six months after the most recent suicide before doing any kind of suicide prevention trainings in the community. A subset of the mental health task force is preparing to undergo postvention training later this week.