A man speaks at a lecturn in front of a building.
Wellmore chief executive officer Gary Steck speaks at the open house for Wellmore's urgent crisis center on Tuesday, Aug. 22. Ginny Monk / CT Mirror

Mental health providers say they hope the opening of four new urgent crisis centers can be the start of a new system of caring for children’s mental health needs.

Providers say they hope the centers can offer a quicker, holistic approach as walk-in clinics for kids in crisis with acute mental health needs.

Advocates hope this can be a profound shift in providing mental health care. They want kids to be able to gain access to services they need without languishing on waitlists. It’s a system providers refer to as the “warm handoff.”

“I think the urgent crisis center is the spearhead of radical change that’s necessary, and we need to adapt in the way in which children and families are saying they need us to,” said Gary Steck, the chief executive officer Wellmore, the operator of Waterbury’s urgent crisis center.

As demand for mental health care has increased, many communities across the state have seen long wait lists for people seeking therapy. The new urgent crisis centers, with deep knowledge of therapeutic services available in the community, plan to steer people to them and, in some cases, offer follow-up care themselves.

The Wellmore Urgent Crisis Center in Waterbury has some outpatient and in-home services available for people who come into the clinic, and officials say they’re developing partnerships with other providers in the community. The center was the first to open in Connecticut and held an open house and celebratory ceremony Tuesday.

Since its opening in early June, the urgent crisis center has treated about two dozen children, Steck said. He added that he believes the creation of the crisis centers could change the way mental health is handled in the area.

There are four in Connecticut, at The Village for Families and Children in Hartford, Yale New Haven Hospital in New Haven, The Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut in New London and Wellmore Behavioral Health in Waterbury. They were established as part of 2022 legislation focused on addressing a mental health crisis among the state’s children.

Nationwide, more kids reported mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse in the aftermath of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a radical departure and enhancement of the system of care for children,” Steck said Tuesday. “For as long as anyone in this room underneath this tent can remember, your only alternative if you’re in a crisis was to go to an emergency room.”

The centers have opened over the past couple of months and have funding set through the fiscal year. Lawmakers have said they plan to look at a more sustainable long-term funding model in the coming legislative session, while the Department of Children and Families is working with other state agencies to find ways to bill Medicaid for the services.

DCF is overseeing several details of the centers and gathering information to assess how they’re doing, who is coming into the clinics, barriers to access and what kind of care people need, said Frank Gregory, administrator of children’s behavioral health community service system at DCF.

The centers also work with transition support specialists who are embedded in the community and are aware of the best places to send people for follow-up after a crisis, Gregory added.

Wellmore doesn’t have a waiting list for outpatient services and will likely team up with other service providers who can have office space on site, Steck said. He thinks the new center will soon be central to their work to offer mental health care to families more quickly.

“Whoever is most urgent is the one who gets the next admission,” Steck said. “We’re really seeing the process changing, with the urgent crisis center being the hub and the other services being the spokes.”

At The Village for Families and Children, the group that runs the urgent crisis center in Hartford, employees call the families to check in daily after discharge until they’re settled in new services, said Amy Samela, vice president of residential programs.

“We are calling them every day to connect with them and see how things are going, and we continue to do this until their next level of care,” Samela said.

But Connecticut’s Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said the other services — nonprofits and in-home care providers — need more resources to support the care kids get at the crisis centers.

“UCCs work in theory as part of a continuum of care,” she said. “What are the other parts of that continuum?”

Many kids have waited for services on lists that are months long, she added.

“Let’s be rigorously honest with ourselves about what the solutions are,” Eagan said.

Steck agreed that nonprofits need more financial support to properly staff services.

Lucendia Isler, a Waterbury mother, said accessing community care was one of the most difficult things to navigate after her teenage son had a mental health crisis.

“I felt like it was hard to navigate the mental health arena at that time, because really, every place you call, there’s a waiting list,” Isler said.

She added that she’s excited to see the urgent crisis center open and thinks it would have helped her family during a difficult time. They could have accessed the services through the center, she said.

“Your No. 1 goal is to get your child the help that they need to be sure everybody’s safe,” she said.

She’s also particularly excited about Wellmore’s location — it’s downtown with easy access to public transportation, she said.

Transportation is key for many families, said Rafael Lozano, a Waterbury native who helps fathers connect with services through DCF’s Fatherhood Engagement Leadership Team.

He’s hopeful that with easy access to the crisis center, families can get help quickly and that the center can connect people to other services.

The community doesn’t have enough care providers for kids now, and it’s difficult for families to access what’s available because it’s a complicated system to navigate. And for families dealing with mental health issues, it can add more stress to an already stressful situation, he added.

“The problem a lot of the time is that nobody knows where to look,” he said.

“But with the crisis center, I think they’re going to be able to service those needs and they have the ability to partner and aid in those needs.”

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021.