The CT program could become a national model for children’s behavioral health

The CT program could become a national model for children’s behavioral health

Dr.  Robert Muro, president and executive director of the Connecticut Council of Family Service Agencies (right) and Dr.  Steven Girelli, president and chief executive officer of the Klingberg Family Center (left), speaks about Screening Connecticut's youth program at a Congressional Conference in Washington, DC on Tuesday, January 30.

Dr. Robert Muro, president and executive director of the Connecticut Council of Family Service Agencies (right) and Dr. Steven Girelli, president and chief executive officer of the Klingberg Family Center (left), speaks about Screening Connecticut’s youth program at a Congressional Conference in Washington, DC on Tuesday, January 30.

Contributed photo, Candida Muro

Connecticut is facing the “perfect storm” when it comes to children’s behavioral health, said Steven Girelli, president and executive director of the Klingberg Family Center in New Britain.

Between underfunded programs and health care worker burnout, keeping up with growing demand and more complex youth behavioral issues has been a challenge for providers, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Girelli said.

“When you put those three factors together, it just creates an unstable situation,” Girelli said. “It’s true, it’s tragic.”

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Despite the challenge, mental health screening has proven to be an effective tool in identifying behavioral concerns in children and getting them the right resources and services early, officials said. One particular program, Screening Connecticut’s Youth, has done just that and connected them with community health workers.

Now officials hope the program’s success can be replicated in other states.

Girelli and Robert Muro, president and executive director of the Connecticut Council of Family Service Agencies, recently spoke at a congressional briefing about the overall results of the program and how it could be implemented in other states.

The free program is run by the Connecticut Council of Family Service Agencies, a Rocky Hill-based human service provider network of 13 nonprofit agencies working to support children, adults and families.

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SCY began last January to screen children and adolescents, ages 4 to 17 across the state for early detection of mental health challenges or trauma issues, according to its website. Since then, it has received more than 400 referrals and conducted 248 screenings, with 52 percent of those screened identified as “at risk,” Muro said.

The council also reports high levels of engagement with 96 percent of families contacted agreeing to be screened and 94 percent of children identified as “at risk” agreeing to attend mental health services.

Muro, who lives in Southington, added that they helped youth make intake appointments for services within two weeks, also reducing “no shows” with more than 80 percent of families and screened children arriving at the appointment their acceptance.

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About one in seven surveyed said they had seriously considered suicide, and only 22.3 percent of students said they could often or always get the help they needed, according to the survey.

“We’re still dealing with the negative stigma of mental illness, of seeking help, but we’re starting to win the battle of normalizing that a mental illness is just as valid and real as a physical illness, like a broken bone. “, said Muro. “Mental illness is very real, it’s legal, and people need help because it has profound long-term consequences if left untreated.”

Muro said children are referred to the program, then a community health worker connects with the family to set up a 15-minute screening in person, over the phone or on a virtual meeting platform. The screening is then evaluated and the family receives a referral to a behavioral health specialist if needed.

Muro said the worker helps find, advocate and schedule timely appointments with therapists on behalf of children. The worker can also help families address social challenges to medical care, such as lack of insurance, language barrier issues, filling out initial paperwork and child care.

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Muro said CHWs bring an extra layer of confidence and can engage well with youth since many come from similar backgrounds to their clients.

“It’s one thing to check on a child and realize they put them ‘at risk.’ It’s a whole other thing to now be the bridge that addresses all the barriers for them to connect to that service and follow it,” Muro said. “That’s the difference with this community health worker model is that the community health workers are making sure they’re addressing all the barriers that may exist for that family to get the care they need.”

The program uses two different screening instruments: a pediatric symptom checklist and a trauma symptom checklist, which are standardized and frequently used in pediatric primary care settings. According to its website, the SCY program exhibits a variety of things, including trouble sleeping, dealing with traumatic events, slipping grades and being angrier than usual.

From a provider perspective, Muro said doctors are motivated to provide timely pickups because the SCY program works to ensure families show up on time.

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“The majority of our population that we tried to help are economically disadvantaged, urban children who are at higher risk for mental illness and or exposure to trauma,” Muro said. “Once we get that appointment, we work with the family to say, ‘Do you have any transportation barriers? Do you need an interpreter for your session? Do you have other children who need childcare during that time?'”

The SCY program was created with federal funds appropriated with the support of U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Muro said. The council also received a grant from the Connecticut Health and Education Services Authority.

Girelli said the Klingberg Family Center was one of three organizations from the council that became involved with SCY after receiving funding and looking to cover a geographic area. The center employs two of the four community health workers in the program.

He said the SCY model is cost-effective because it acts as a secondary prevention model as it helps access resources faster.

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“(Clients) may benefit from behavioral health services that are at the end of the acuity continuum, and therefore significantly less expensive and more likely to render unnecessary, more acute services later in children’s lives, he said. .

A year after launch, Blumenthal invited the council to speak at a congressional briefing to bring more information to other state leaders. Both Muro and Girelli said the presentation went well and many questions were asked about the program model, especially regarding the use of CHWs, a relatively new profession in the health field.

Muro hopes the conference can also be a “crude for additional funding.”

He said the council is looking to “take the program to the next level” by gathering data to demonstrate how it saves money for the overall health care system. Muro added that they are looking to learn more about the long-term impact on children’s behaviors after being referred to services through SCY.

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Although funding from federal and private sources for the program is running out, Girelli said the Klingberg Family Center will continue to offer SCY with light interruptions and limited capacity until additional money is secured.

He said he hopes SCY becomes a permanent program as it has been effective in engaging youth and providing them with intake appointments that often take months to plan.

“I’m pretty excited about most of our programs, but this one in particular really meets the kids and the family where they are and helps them access services that would otherwise be very challenging,” Girelli said.

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