Mental Health Advocates Meet with County Legislators for Educational Forum [Norwalk Hour]

December 18, 2014

Article as it appeared in the Norwalk Hour

December 10, 2014 (Norwalk, CT) –A standing-room-only crowd of approximately 120 community members and service providers packed the Community Room at Norwalk City Hall Wednesday morning, December 3, for the Southwest CT Regional Legislative Forum on Mental Health.

The audience mingled with 13 area legislators prior to an educational program focused on four areas of mental health need, identified in the new Priority Services Report for Southwestern CT and the recent Community Conversations on Mental Health held throughout Fairfield County. (Reports are available at

State Senator Bob Duff and Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling welcomed the community to the program, recognizing the importance of focusing on mental health, which affects 1 in 5 Americans each year. Moderator Margaret Watt, Executive Director of the Southwest Regional Mental Health Board, observed that the participants “truly represent the varied faces of mental health needs and services across the lifespan and throughout the region.”

Legislators in attendance included Senators Duff, Toni Boucher, Scott Frantz, and Carlo Leone, as well as Representatives Laura Devlin, Dan Fox, Laura Hoydick, Gail LaVielle, Cristin McCarthy-Vahey, Bruce Morris, Tom O’Dea, Chris Perone, and David Rutigliano.

Duff highlighted the importance of these educational events and the opportunity to build relationships among advocates and elected officials. The event included personal testimonies from two community members, a summary of the priority areas, and an opportunity for legislators to ask questions and learn more from the audience.

Audience members who spoke included representatives of Child Guidance, the F.S. Dubois Center, Family & Children’s Agency, the CT Coalition to End Homelessness, the Peers Utilizing Skills for Health program, Communities 4 Action, and the region’s Catchment Area Councils, among others.

Supported Housing and Peer Support for People with Mental Illness

Legislators heard personal testimony from Pedro Montalvo of Bridgeport, who shared the struggles he has experienced, including homelessness, due to his clinical depression and past substance use. Montalvo attributed his recovery to a combination of hospital and clinic-based programs as well as peer services, including employment support, received through Bridge House.

According to briefing notes provided at the event by the Southwest Regional Mental Health Board and its partners, 20% of adults in homeless shelters live with a severe mental illness and almost half have a mental illness and/or substance use disorder.

The state of CT offers a continuum of supported housing options for those with mental illness, incorporating case management and rehabilitative services to help affected individuals be successful in the community. Challenges include meeting the needs of those who require multi-year care, maintaining funding for those who exit institutional care and require services in the community, and meeting demand.

A question by Senator Boucher about whether psychiatric hospitals are needed generated strong audience responses both for and against. Watt noted that there needs to be a full range of services so that individuals can be housed and treated at a level of care appropriate to their needs.

Access to Care

Patsy King of Southport spoke emotionally about the impact on her family of her son’s struggles with mental illness and addiction. Underscoring an issue that was highlighted throughout the event, King pointed out that families with private insurance cannot access the case management and other support services needed by individuals who experience severe mental illness.

People with mental illness who have public insurance are able to receive a range of recovery-oriented services, although Watt noted that there remains unmet demand in the public sector as well, particularly for services such as supported employment, as well as bilingual services.

Schools Targeted for Mental Health Support & Services

Schools were identified as a focal point for mental health support and access to care, since mental illness and substance use most often begin in the teen years. Last year, Fairfield County experienced its highest rate of teen suicides.

School-based health centers were held up as a proven and cost-effective model for reaching teenagers, especially minority groups, and for providing physical, mental, and dental health. In Fairfield County, Bridgeport, Danbury, Norwalk, and Stamford are the only communities that have school-based health centers at present.

Some communities are offering school-based mental health support programs such as the TeenTalk program, run by Kids in Crisis in select Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, and Ridgefield middle and/or high schools.
In closing, Senator Duff encouraged the community to continue its collaboration with legislators around a small number of priorities over the coming year. Those interested in being involved are invited to contact the Southwest Regional Mental Health Board (SWRMHB) at 203-840-1187. Briefing notes on the four mental health priorities are available at the SWRMHB website,