Published in The Day

By Erica Moser

Three middle school students giggled Thursday at the Lymes' Youth Services Bureau as they played an improv game in which one person must be sitting, one standing and one lying down at all times. The prompt for this round: meeting the queen of England — and there was some fierce competition for the throne.

It was the second day of a summer improv class called "Acting Up!" with 2019 Lyme-Old Lyme High School graduate Jacob Olsen.

"I actually like to act, and I thought it would be fun to learn more improv skills," said Josie Arndt, 10. Fellow participant Kylie Grethel, 11, previously had done a cooking class through LYSB, while Charlotte Thuma, 12, attended engineering and babysitting courses.

Charlotte said these kinds of programs "helped some of us come out of our COVID bubbles." Kylie said the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, she struggled with stress and losing sleep, and being less social.

This class — along with others such as pottery and outdoor studio drawing and painting — is part of the Lymes Creative Arts initiative, a middle and high school summer arts program that LYSB, Sustainable Old Lyme and Sustainable Lyme created last year. The organizations surveyed kids in the two towns about what they wanted to do over the summer.

"What they really were looking for were outlets during the summer that would help them deal with stress and anxiety," said Cheryl Poirier, chairwoman of Sustainable Old Lyme and a member of that town's American Rescue Plan Committee. She added that art "is a wonderful way" for teens to process their feelings, and each class fee is just $25 for four to six sessions.

In approving $2.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding Tuesday, Old Lyme voters approved $12,500 to fund the program in 2023 and 2024, "focusing on creative outlets for positive mental health," according to the committee's recommendations.

Old Lyme's ARPA funding also includes $114,160 for LYSB to increase counseling hours, something for which other cities and towns in the region also are using ARPA funds — for adults and seniors as well as kids.

In applying for funding in May, LYSB Executive Director Mary Seidner noted that her agency provides eight hours a week of therapeutic services but had a waitlist, and the funding would allow an increase to 16 hours for four years.

In the 2021 LYSB youth survey, 21% of youths in grades 7 to 12 reported suicidal thinking, nearly double the response from the 2019 survey, and 60% said they feel anxious.

Seidner said she's seen an increase in requests for mental health services for kids 10 and under, and kids not wanting to go to school.

Erin Haggan, youth and family services coordinator in Norwich, also has seen a lot of school avoidance — in addition to anxiety, depression and behavioral issues.

She recalled that one high school girl was struggling with school attendance and feeling depressed after a tragic event in her family, so the school reached out to Haggan's office. The girl has been meeting with a therapist weekly. Haggan said that has helped her return to school more consistently and eliminate "toxic relationships that weren't serving her."

Norwich Youth & Family Services was allocated $500,000 in ARPA funding for mental health services. This allowed the office to bring on four contracted clinicians between two and 15 hours a week each, and two therapeutic mentors at 10 hours a week each. They started in January.

Clinicians offer both individual therapy and family therapy, and NYFS is sharing some of the money with the senior center to provide clinical services for seniors. Services are free and Haggan said there's no waitlist.

Not just for youth

In addition to putting ARPA funding toward a mental health consultant who started in September and is available to preschools, New London is using $100,000 to hire an outreach mental health worker for the senior center.

Jeanne Milstein, human services director for the city, said candidates are being interviewed and then a communitywide survey will be conducted. Marina Vracevic, coordinator of the senior center, said the outreach worker will help connect people to services.

Social isolation is a major issue she's seen, and people coming to the senior center less during the pandemic has made it more difficult to notice changes, such as in physical appearance, mobility or confusion.

The federal government sent ARPA funding to cities and towns in two tranches. New London Human Services got $1.4 million last year and $2 million this year. Milstein said money for human services is not only to help people but also to transform systems.

Milstein created a committee to review proposals, and the four priorities it established were housing, food security, mental health and immigration. She talks about how interconnected everything is, that "food is mental health. Housing is mental health."

Similarly, Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut President and CEO Maryam Elahi said, "we've got to keep the issue of mental health integrated with overall access to health, so it's really about health equity."

While the foundation didn't receive ARPA funds, it put together a steering committee — including Milstein — to convene people and advocate for three priorities for ARPA spending: mental health, early childhood care and education, and affordable housing. The group encouraged first selectmen and mayors to put at least 30% of their ARPA funds into these areas.

East Lyme gave $30,000 of its $5.5 million in ARPA funding to the Brian Dagle Foundation, a nonprofit focused on grief support and suicide awareness. This will allow the organization to expand its private grief therapy and grief support groups, President Ann Dagle said. The biggest group now is for people who have lost a spouse or partner.

She said the ARPA funds will allow the foundation to reach more people, and the funds will be allocated across the next two and a half years to help offset the costs of therapists.

As for suicide prevention efforts, Dagle does a lot of work with schools, which she said are reaching out to mobile crisis intervention services and 211 more than they ever have.

Stonington put $10,000 of its $5.2 million in ARPA funding toward a campaign to raise awareness about 211, a 24/7 line the nonprofit agency United Way operates to connect people to health and human services.

First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough said police "probably see a lot of calls" that could be directed to 211 instead. The idea for the campaign came before the American Rescue Plan Act but the funding helped keep it going and boost visibility, such as by putting a billboard on Route 2.

Stonington also set aside $12,480 of its ARPA funding for a part-time counselor. The town offers free counseling for residents, who can call Stonington Human Services at (860) 535-5015 if they need assistance.

"They just were having really extensive waitlists, so this enabled us to bring on an additional person part time," Chesebrough said. ARPA funding eventually will run out, but she said human services staff do "an amazing job tracking numbers and stats, so I think by the next budget cycle, we'll be able to show there's a need for this."

Listed under the category of "Mental Health Services" on its ARPA quarterly report, Waterford has budgeted $266,101 for a human services coordinator over multiple years and expended $30,407 as of March 31.

Heidi McSwain, who worked for the Town of Groton's Human Services Department for nearly 27 years, started in this role at Waterford Youth & Family Services in the fall. She helps manage the hours for the free counseling services, and she told The Day earlier this year that an important part of her job "is to find the best ways to get mental health services to our youth by utilizing the various grants and resources available to us."

School districts do their own mental health spending

Cities and towns across the country are getting a total of $350 billion in ARPA funds through the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program, while school districts are getting $122 billion through the ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, fund.

Norwich Public Schools characterized more than $5 million of its allocation as ARP funding to support students' mental health, including $1.1 million for upgrades to facilities — such as playfields — and $300,000 for kinesthetic furniture, which allows students to move and expend energy, and an outdoor classroom.

It also includes $2.16 million for registered behavior technicians, $727,703 for board-certified behavior analysts, $450,000 for family-engagement and attendance coordinators, and $42,325 for social-emotional classroom resources and materials.

The behavior analysts and technicians provide individual and family counseling, home visits and behavioral assessments, Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster said. The family-engagement and attendance coordinators hold family meetings to discuss the importance of social-emotional development in young kids and strategies to use at home.

She added that the spending on social-emotional materials includes a "cozy area" with a mat, bean bag chair and fidget toys where kids can go if they need a break.

Waterford Superintendent Thomas W. Giard III said the district has invested more than $1 million in mental health areas, with multiple years of funding for an additional school psychologist for grades 6 to 12, another school social worker for grades 9 to 12 and the addition of a therapeutic day program at Waterford High School.

ARPA funding also has gone toward seed funding to open two school-based mental and physical health clinics, in conjunction with United Community & Family Services.

Groton Superintendent Susan Austin said the district has used ESSER funds for additional social workers, an additional social emotional learning coordinator and SEL tutors and a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator.

Stonington Public Schools also put aside funding for a social-emotional learning coordinator at Stonington Middle School, with the goal of decreasing students' need for mental health support, and for a family liaison specialist at West Vine Street School.

The new Birth to Age 8 Early Childhood Resource Center in New London, at the former B.P. Learned Mission building, got support from both ESSER and ARPA funds that went to the city Human Services department.

"The earlier you can intervene, the better the outcomes," Milstein said, "and the beauty of preschool is when you're working with the child, you're working with the whole family."