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Community Conversation Focuses on Children’s Mental Health Issues

MentalHealthSummitPhoto: A summit to share concerns about children's mental health in NE Connecticut attracted 75 of the region's leaders.

In response to growing concerns around children’s mental health and its effects on schools and communities in northeastern Connecticut, many of the region’s leaders, educators and providers convened at EASTCONN to share information and grapple with questions about how deep the problem goes. 

“Part of EASTCONN’s mission is to bring people and communities together to discuss issues that connect us all,” EASTCONN’s Director of Early Childhood Diane Gozemba told nearly 80 people who assembled in Hampton for A Community Conversation: Mental Health Issues in Northeastern Connecticut: A Growing Concern. 

“Children’s mental health is one of those issues that is not going away,” she said. “This is about our communities, and it’s a call to action for all of us.”

Representatives from several state departments, including Children and Families, Public Health and Labor joined town selectmen, school administrators, social workers, Family Resource Center directors, mental health providers and early childhood educators for a morning-long community conversation around mental health.

Dr. Marianne Barton, Clinical Professor and Director of the Psychological Services Clinic at UCONN, delivered the keynote. She outlined the scope of Connecticut’s mental health problem with some troubling statistics: 1 in 5 children (156,000) have mental health needs; only 20% of those can access care; 44% of children, ages 2-5, are exposed to at least 1 trauma; 49% of child abuse and neglect victims are under the age of 6 and more than 95,000 children under the age of 6 have experienced trauma, which can have long-term, negative effects on their physical and mental health. 

 “All of this is complicated by poverty, isolation, long distances, access and stigma.” Barton raised concerns about Connecticut’s high rates of student expulsions and suspensions, and underscored that teachers need better training and support, so they can effectively identify and respond to students’ mental health needs in the classroom. She also identified a region-wide lack of funding and access to services as key problems.

Following Barton’s keynote, a facilitated, interactive panel of experts fielded questions from the audience. Panelists included Barton; Francis J. Carino, Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney in the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney, who spoke about mental health issues and the juvenile justice system; Kenneth DiPietro, Superintendent of Schools in Plainfield, who spoke about mental health issues in schools; and Jan Shanks, M.Ed., Behavioral Account Manager for CIGNA, who spoke about the intersection of mental health issues, access to providers and insurance.

Afterward, groups rotated through facilitated break-out sessions to discuss four areas of concern: challenging behaviors in schools, beginning with our youngest learners; access to mental health services in the region; the effects of mental health issues on families and communities; and mental health issues in the juvenile justice system. 

 “The key word here is silos,” said Allan Cahill, First Selectman in Hampton, as he leaned in to hear what was being said in one break-out session. “We need more collaboration.” 

Once the large group had reconvened, each break-out facilitator summarized everyone’s thoughts and ideas. They will be included in a summary report and sent to all those who attended. During the closing minutes, many attendees shared their thoughts. 

“We need to make our legislators aware … we need to advocate as a region,” said John Goodman, of United Services.

“This was an awakening for me as a town official,” said Rick Ives, Brooklyn’s First Selectman. 

“How can we work with school systems to address mental health issues through policy that stays, even when administrations change?” asked Linda Colangelo, with the NE District Department of Health. 

 “I think shared services and collaboration are key,” said Ann Gruenberg, president of CABE.

“The big question is, how do we change the narrative around mental health issues in our communities and schools?” said EASTCONN Executive Director Paula M. Colen. 

EASTCONN will send a survey to all those who attended the June 1st meeting, and analyze the results. Based on responses, EASTCONN will invite participants to continue the conversation by identifying manageable options that can be pursued regionally by stakeholders. 

For more information, contact EASTCONN’s Diane Gozemba at dgozemba@eastconn.org


Panelists and facilitators who participated in the Community Conversation included, left to right: Dr. Marianne Barton, Jan Shanks, Francis J. Carino, Paula M. Colen,Kenneth DiPietro and Diane Gozemba.