NEW LONDON — Nineteen-year-old Ariana Lopez said she wished she had access to an Urgent Crisis Center when struggled with mental health as a teenager. Instead, she ended up in the emergency room multiple times.
“It would have been an awesome thing to have somewhere peaceful and safe and calm where it’s not as traumatic,” she told CT Examiner.
Lopez shared her experience at a Thursday ceremony celebrating the opening of a new Urgent Crisis Center at the Children and Family Agency in New London. The center is one of four that have opened across the state within the last few months, funded with $21 million in federal coronavirus relief money.
Caitlyn Ogilvie, director of the crisis center, said they’ve served 13 children in the nearly three weeks the center opened, and that none of those children had to be transferred to the emergency room. Some of them, she said, came in with suicidal thoughts or were thinking about killing someone else.
Ogilvie said staff are able to send children home with additional help and, sometimes, refer them to intensive in-home therapies or give families other types of support. She said she expected to refer many young people to the Joshua Center for outpatient or partial hospitalization programs.
So far, she said, the clinic has seen not only children from New London, but also from surrounding towns, including Waterford, East Lyme and Colchester.
New London Police Chief Brian Wright told CT Examiner that before the Urgent Crisis Center, a child in crisis would have to be taken to Lawrence and Memorial Hospital. Wright said the police department has already made referrals to the new crisis center.
“Mental health is elevated everywhere. So to have a young person be witness to that which goes on in the ER has no calming effect. And it kind of increases the issues or concerns and, given a period of time, it might cause a young person to shut down and, just for the mere reason of not wanting to be there, say the right things to quicken their stay there,” Wright said.
During the ceremony, nurse coordinator Judy Nodwell read the testimony of a mother who brought her child to the crisis center. The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said her child was having anxiety and unable to sleep.
“I was hesitant to seek care due to past negative experiences related to mental health,” the testimony read. “I knew my child needed help. I went to the UCC unsure if they could help or if they would send us to wait at an emergency room for hours. I have other children to care for too, and I was worried about that.”
According to the testimony, the mother left the center with prescriptions for medications, follow-up appointments and a safety plan.
“Families in need can walk in, they can get immediate crisis de-escalation, they can receive an integrated assessment, and they can walk out with more hope and also connected to care in the community,” Children and Family Agency CEO Lisa Otto said.
Lopez, a New London native, said growing up in the city “wasn’t always easy.” Her father died when she was 16, she said, and mental health issues weren’t always acknowledged in a Hispanic family.
“You’re taught that depression isn’t real, or anger isn’t real, anxiety isn’t real. You’re just acting,” she said.
Lopez said she ended up in an emergency room for the first time around age 12 or 13. She recalled the stigma of going to the hospital for mental health issues, and how people equated it with “being crazy.”
“[They’re] like, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to a mental hospital. You must be crazy,’ when there’s so many more reasons why anyone can go to a psych hospital. It could be for depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts. Maybe you’re just not feeling yourself,” Lopez said.
As a child, she tried individual and group counseling, and “hated it,” she said. But eventually, Lopez added, she went back to counseling after a suicide attempt — this time because she wanted to, rather than on a doctor’s orders.
“When you make the choice within yourself to want to do the progress, it changes you. Because back then, I didn’t want to do the progress,” she said. “Now that I wanted to do the change, it actually made a difference in my life.”
She also quit smoking, gave birth to a daughter, who is now a year old, and recently became a certified nurse assistant. Lopez is also starting a GED program and hopes to eventually work as a psychiatric nurse.
“I think that’s [what] my calling is for,” she said.
The Urgent Crisis Center is located at 255 Hempstead St. in New London, and is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.