A $1.2 million federal grant will improve access to behavioral health services for teens in the northwest corner of Connecticut, addressing one of the area’s most critical health care needs.
Funds will primarily go towards creating a network of care that will increase capacity of existing providers, as well as bring in new providers to help support excess demand.
“We’re at full capacity in terms of serving the adolescents that we already are,” said Leonardo Ghio, project director at the Northwest Hills Council of Governments, or NHCOG, the regional planning body that coordinates services across 21 towns in the northwest corner. The organization is spearheading the four-year initiative through the establishment of the Northwest Hills Community Health Network of Connecticut.
Ghio said he hopes more providers means that teens will be able to access care proactively, instead of only in response to a crisis.
NHCOG won the grant through the Rural Health Network Development grant program administered by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. They will collaborate with local providers, including the McCall Behavioral Health Network, Community Health and Wellness Center of Greater Torrington and Greenwoods Counseling & Referrals. The latter two provide school-based mental health services.
The federal government administered only 44 grants through the program.
“It was very competitive,” said Ghio. “The federal government’s really putting a big spotlight on mental health and adolescent behavioral health, so I think it was helpful that we aligned with their strategic plans.”
Ghio said NHCOG and the other organizations already work together closely and it likely helped that they were able to demonstrate existing partnerships.
The funds will also go towards improving access for teens 13 to 18 through measures like vouchers for transportation and internet services, depending on whether children are receiving care in-person or via telehealth.
Greenwoods Counseling & Referrals will also lead a program whereby providers of all types can refer kids in need of behavioral services. Greenwoods will then take charge of connecting those teens to providers, whether they were referred by a hospital, EMS provider, community health center, or school.
“It’s going to be a no-wrong-door approach,” said Ghio.
Fighting the stigma
The program will also focus on addressing the stigma against mental health care often found in rural communities.
“It’s just the nature of the rural community,” said Ghio, who grew up in Warren and now resides in New Milford. “There’s one: ‘We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.’ And there’s two: ‘We don’t see those problems here.”
Across the state, Killingly endured a high-profile battle over the local school board’s decision in 2022 to turn down a grant-funded mental health clinic at the high school. This past April, after a yearlong saga that involved parents, administrators and state officials, the town’s Board of Education approved a new memorandum of understanding for a mental health provider to come into the school.
Ghio said he experienced some pushback from the area’s first selectmen when he first started discussing the need for more behavioral health care among teens roughly 18 months ago. But, now, most of them are on board.
“I tried to always bring it close to home and ask them to put themselves in the position of a parent who … had a child that was experiencing behavioral health issues,” he said.
After Ghio’s parents got divorced when he was in elementary school, he began acting out. His mother found him a therapist, but Ghio remembers having to drive 35 minutes from his house to see his provider. He feels lucky that his mom even had a vehicle, which allowed him to access the care he needed.
“Ultimately, it hits home for me to offer this network and the services that we will,” he said.