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Middletown Councilman Darnell Ford talks about being a mental health worker for Connecticut children

Middletown Councilman Darnell Ford
Courtesy photo
Middletown Councilman Darnell Ford

A little over two weeks ago the leaders of the Connecticut House and Senate held an online symposium on the need to improve mental health services for children and adults. They want to make that effort a priority when the legislative session begins on February 9.

Middletown Democratic Councilman Darnell Ford moderated that discussion. Mr. Ford is also a long-time child services worker at the Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center in Middletown. The Solnit Center is a psychiatric facility operated by the Department of Children and Families.

He spoke with WSHU’s Tom Kuser on the talk show, The Full Story. Here’s their conversation.

TOM KUSER: Councilman Ford joins us now via Zoom. Councilman, welcome to The Full Story.

COUNCILMAN DARNELL FORD: Oh, thank you for having me. Certainly.

KUSER: What kind of work do you do at the Solnit Children’s Center?

FORD: I'm what's called a direct care worker, which is a lead children's services worker. My responsibility is to guide and facilitate the shift, for the patients that are there for multiple reasons. Their average daily living skills, making sure that they reach their programmatic therapeutic assignments or groups and the staff are provided with the necessary education and service to help them during that process.

KUSER: So you're on the front lines when it comes to working with people who need these services.

FORD: Yes. I've been on the front lines not necessarily with the hospital for the entire 35 years, but I've been doing this a long time. So you can say I've seen my share and heard my share of stories and unfortunate circumstances for our families and children.

KUSER: What does your experience as a child services worker tell you about the current state of mental health services in Connecticut right now?

FORD: It has been for quite some time lacking in its need to support those children and families who are most vulnerable having to deal with mental health issues and addiction. It's unfortunate what I've learned over the course of my time, that mental health hasn't gotten the level of education for people who don't exactly experience it, who don't know someone who's who's going through it, who haven't experienced it themselves. So it's not only dealing with those issues of mental health and addiction. It's also educating and going through it and understanding how long that journey is. It's just not a conversation. It's just not a therapy session. It's just not, you know, an assessment or, you know, a diagnosis. It's a lifetime, unfortunately, challenge for everyone.

KUSER: I understand last fall there was a shortage of pediatric mental health beds and about 40 kids had to go to the emergency department at the Connecticut children's medical center in Hartford was that related to the pandemic, that shortage of beds.

FORD: Shortage of beds has always been an issue. But the pandemic has exacerbated that because again, if you are working, let's say pre-pandemic, you know, there might have been, let's say 25 in a shortage of beds. Now with the pandemic, there is less opportunities for those therapy sessions to happen in person, less opportunities for those services to be provided in home, less triage, less pre-assessment for all of those issues and continuing what is present and what needs to be for the future available for those children's and families. So when those things shut down because of the pandemic, not only was their a rise for those basic needs, you now have taken a situation, for example, a child in school who would've met with their friends or talked with their counselor or their teacher, or had some levels of distraction or support, you know, at, at its natural point disappear years.

And so that then raises that issue of now those things that were not necessarily an upfront problem become a problem. And now you don't have the resources to be able to go and even get that triaged, assessed or diagnosed and taken care of. So you go from 25 to 40, 40 to 60, and if we don't take a real strong stance on this, a foundational stance on this, not like the ones we've taken pre pandemic. We have to think of this like, this is going to be something that we are challenged with for decades, for the rest of these individuals' lives. It's only gonna get worse.

KUSER: Could you talk a little bit more about what the pandemic has done with or to the mental health of some children? You touched on that, the kids not being able to socialize with their friends, but more deeply, what has it done to mental health for so many kids.

FORD: Even as an essential worker for the state, you take on this position with an understanding that there's going to be child challenges and things that you hear and have to deal with, that you may not have experienced before and you're going to have to take on some of what those individuals you're working with, what they're going through. But just imagine your toughest scenario in working with a child who has had an insurmountable amount of trauma in their own home, that brings them to the hospital in which we work. And you're now responsible for creating an environment, a safe environment, a therapeutic environment, a nurturing environment, a professional one that provides them with the support to be able to be stable and get a level of understanding on how they can return back to their home, as well as giving that same support to the guardian or parent who is helping them with their own struggles — to cut that off completely.

There's no visitation, there's very little communication where they might have been able to talk and see cousins or uncles or aunts or family members. All of that during the pandemic was eliminated. And you were told that you needed to remain on one unit in a particular environment with very little contact, even with those individuals who might have been on the unit next to you or down the hall, or, you know, in a particular area. If you had a gym area in which you might have been able to collaborate or commune with other units and patients where you at least had the opportunity to have some level of socialization, all of that is cut off. It was like every door to anything that had a sense of reality connection relationship was cut. So now it's just as if you and I are on this call, this podcast right now, and we can only talk to each other and we have fairly little contact if any contact at all with the outside world.

Now I say that as an adult. Now imagine that for the child. The child who's only connection was to his or her world was to the single mom. And now that's gone. And you're being told by everyone around you that you need to get better. You need to take this medication. You need to go to this therapy. You need to be in this environment. You need not to be around this person. You need to be able to do all of these things. And you're telling this to, and trying to help and support an individual who is suffering from mental health issues. I don't know any other way to explain that than it's beyond challenging. And these are the kids that are actually in the facility that have the help and the support.

KUSER: How prepared would you say was the system to help children with mental health issues? How prepared was it to take on this additional challenge? Was it a complete surprise so to speak? Were there contingency plans available to put into effect generally speaking to handle emergencies, or was this just so unprecedented that it was pretty much just hold on tight and go for the ride?

FORD: It was a little bit of everything. We figured out very early on, we were not prepared to be able to manage in the same way that we had before. I mean, we're are accustomed to dealing with crises, you know, but also having those resources available to be able to mitigate some of that. And when at every step, as we were learning about the pandemic and how it impacted, how we were able to implement programs and provide care for the children and support for the families. We had to hold on tight. We had to be willing to accept as much feedback as we could and make necessary and creative adjustments in understanding that as soon as we could relieve some of this pressure. That was additional pressure that was not only put on the children and the families, but on the staff in the programs that we were running, that we needed to be as close to flexible and creative as we could.

We had no idea what was going to change. We had no idea what was going to be handed to us or what we were going to be expected to do. Our main goal was to, as best as possible, keep the most therapeutic environment that we could, the safest environment that we could and be open and willing to understand and have conversations around those and look for stress exhaustion, frustration. How do we talk about that? How do we work with that? How do you know the persistence of what we needed to do and try to understand what we didn't know yet? And which we're still working with. I mean, we still don't know all of what we need to know. So we leave continually leave areas in which to learn and move our program in the way we help and support and guide kids in mental health environments in the best way that we can.

KUSER: Can I ask you how you and your colleagues are doing? The pressure on your own mental health must be incredible.

FORD: There are no words. It gets to the point you have moments of frustration. You have… there's burnout. I think everyone that's working in this field right now is already burnt out. But we understand the nature of the work. We understand the need. We understand the true meaning of essential. And that goes for all our doctors, our nurses, our clinicians, our psychologists, our mental health workers. Anyone who is doing this there's a piece of us that still remains strong and foundational that if we don't survive this, then our kids and our parents and the people that are looking for our support definitely won't survive. So we ask, we grab, we hold onto any piece of that strength amongst ourselves, you know, with each other, you know, we dig deep to continue this. There's not an option not to continue to do this work. It just isn't because if we're stressed and burnt, can you imagine the people who are going through this, what they're dealing with it's, it's just…there's really no words.

KUSER: I'm speaking with Darnell Ford. He's a Middletown Councilman, a Democratic Councilman — also a longtime child services worker at the Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center in Middletown. Councilman Ford, as we mentioned earlier, you were the moderator for an online symposium that involved the leaders of the Connecticut house and the state Senate, talking about the need to improve mental health services for children and adults. Did you get any positive vibes from that discussion? There seemed to be a renewed or an increased focus on the need for, for improvement, for change in mental health services for all people in the state. Did you get a feeling that things are moving at least a bit in the right direction?

FORD: I did. I was very happy with the symposium. We had excellent and experienced and knowledgeable speakers. I was quite pleased with Representative Majority Leader [Matt] Ritter and Senator [Martin] Looney's involvement in their position this coming session — it's what we needed. Do we need more? Absolutely, 100%. Should we have had it prior to? Absolutely. But there has to be an understanding that, again, as I said earlier, there's an education that people without having experienced it at some level, some great level — it's not an easy subject to take on. People don't truly understand it. So I tend to wonder, and, you know, even after the symposium, you know, what's next and how far will people go? Do we truly understand what it's going to take?

Obviously the people who are doing the work, they do, they understand. My feeling on the symposium was that is exactly where we need to start. And now we need to truly push forward. Even if it's a little step, the next step needs to be there. And after that, it needs to be nine and it needs to be something that, as I said in the symposium, is sustainable, that we're not going to be having these same conversations and be happy, a small step next year, or even a tiny step two to three years from now. But where we're talking about this is look at what we've done. We've been able to have, not just a conversation, but take action, put in legislation to do what's necessary to have true understanding about the mental health crisis of our youth and our adults. Along with addictions issues and services being provided within our community, within the private sector, within the public sector that it's different than it ever has been before. It's robust, it's full. People don't have to run and search it's right there, in abundance, without feeling you have to take risks or be scared to actually look for those services or have those services.

KUSER: There does appear to be bipartisan support for mental health legislation this year. It's early — the session hasn't begun yet. Is it too early for you to be optimistic that lawmakers will address adequately this crisis?

FORD: No, I think they will. You know, I asked myself this question prior to the symposium, because we've had many conversations amongst ourselves in many different forms and groups. I always ask, what do people need to hear? What story moves them? What unfortunate tragedy will it take? And does it have to take that for people to understand how bad this is. Not just for the people doing the work, but especially for the people experiencing it in their lives. You're talking about folks who are just looking for a quality of life and helping them manage the issues, the mental health issues, or the addiction that they're going through at that time. Nobody wants handouts. They just want to be able to live a good quality life. We're saying as a state, as a city, as agencies, we have the resources and the power to be able to do that.

And I agree. I know we do. So what does it take to move everyone in that direction? Fully! Not partially, not maybe a little bit this time, maybe a little bit next time. When I'm at work, when I'm talking either, you know, on the council or even with the children at our facility, I can't talk in parts. We have to talk fully, openly, honestly, transparently about what we're able to do and how we can provide that. Because by giving anything partial, doesn't give them the full and necessary support and treatment that they deserve and that they need. They've had a lot of parts in their lives and we can't support that type of continued dysfunctional process.

KUSER: Councilman, thank you so much for your time today and for your insights, from your unique perspective, when it comes to mental health services, especially involving children, we appreciate your time today.

FORD: Well, thank you for having me. And anytime more than happy to talk about this subject.

KUSER: Thank you. Middletown Democratic Councilman Darnell Ford was a moderator of a discussion a couple of weeks ago with leaders of the Connecticut house and state Senate on the need to improve mental health services for children and adults. And he is a frontline worker working with child services.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.