Carolina Serna’s job as a care coordinator for the Clifford Beers, a behavioral health care provider based in New Haven, puts her in the middle of today’s mental health crisis for kids, teenagers and their families. When Clifford Beers gets referrals for cases, Serna and other care coordinators become the face of the organization, helping children and families get the clinical care they need. But Serna and her colleagues do much more than that. In a sense, they’re the bridge between troubled families and the rest of society. Take one of the many tough situations Serna handled during the COVID-19 crisis: A young Hispanic mother in New Haven had just lost her job.
The growing number of children and teens exposed to traumatic events in everyday life has forced the state’s crisis intervention teams to respond to a broader range of behavioral and mental health issues, and those teams often serve as a bridge until at-risk youth find appropriate outpatient or inpatient services. Sixty-four percent of Connecticut’s youth who use Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services (EMPS), the state’s mobile crisis intervention team, have experienced one or more traumatic incidents, such as domestic violence, cyber-bullying, physical assaults, or gang warfare, experts report. Research shows childhood exposure to violence, physical or sexual abuse, and other traumatic events can cause chronic health and behavioral health problems, and such exposure is associated with increased involvement with the child welfare and criminal justice systems.
“The number of children who have been exposed to trauma is a significant concern. It’s a common occurrence among young people,” said Jeffrey Vanderploeg, vice president for mental health initiatives for the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut (CHDI). He is director of the EMPS Performance Improvement Center, which is housed at CHDI.
Mental disorders surpassed respiratory problems and all other ailments as the leading cause of hospitalization in Connecticut in 2012 for children ages 5 to 14, teenagers and younger adults, according to a new state health department report. The report shows that the number of days that patients with behavioral health problems were hospitalized surged 5.3 percent between 2011 and 2013, to nearly 260,000 patient days. Other categories of hospitalizations, including cardiac and cancer care, declined during that time. The data show five hospitals had increases of more than 12 percent in the number of days that patients with behavioral health problems were hospitalized. The biggest increases were at Yale-New Haven Hospital, which saw the number of patients rise 61 percent, and inpatient days jump 51 percent; and Waterbury Hospital, with 26 percent more patients and a 37 percent increase in inpatient days.
The state will use a $4 million federal grant to launch a pilot program in a New Haven neighborhood that officials hope will be a statewide model for improving early identification and treatment of children’s mental health. The five-year grant, announced Tuesday by the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, will not add new mental-health services for children, but instead will embed care coordinators and clinicians in schools and pediatric offices, in an effort to catch problems early and improve access to existing programs.
The grant is targeted to children ages 8 and younger in the city’s Dwight neighborhood, which has a robust network of mental health providers, including Yale-New Haven Hospital. “This is all about making the existing services more effective and accessible,” DCF Deputy Commissioner Michael Williams said of the grant project, dubbed the Elm City Project Launch. He said the agency selected the Dwight neighborhood because it has a “tremendous array of services” to handle referrals to care resulting from increased mental health screenings. In other areas of the city and state, he acknowledged, “There clearly are a dearth of services” – a problem that the new grant does not address.