April 16, 2024


Extraordinary care

‘To increase timely access to health care’

NEW MILFORD — Students in some schools in town now have access to professional behavioral and mental health services — at no cost to them.

Last month, student-based health centers opened in New Milford High School and Schaghticoke Middle School.

A behavioral health provider is on-site at both of those schools one day a week. The services are available to any student that’s in that particular school building.

“The goal is to remove barriers to access to care, such as lack of an available provider in the community, or lack of transportation, or a finance concern,” said Melanie Bonjour, the school-based health center program manager for Connecticut Institute For Communities, Inc., or CIFC, which is partnering with the school to provide the service.

The school-based health centers work in collaboration and partnership with school nurses. “The nurses may identify a child who will need a higher level of care,” New Milford School Superintendent Alisha DiCorpo said.

They would then refer the child to the SBHC provider.

“If the parent has provided permission, the student can be seen at the clinic. It’s not just physical; it is also behavioral health,” DiCorpo said. “School-based health centers provide a broader level of care.”

Behavioral health services are individual, group and family counseling that cover a range of disorders — “anything that you’d see in a higher level of care in the community that you’d seek private clinicians office. It could be evaluation for anxiety disorders, depression, challenges academically, social isolation, concerns about suicidal ideation, risk taking behaviors. It could be substance abuse concerns and challenges academically,” Bonjour said.

The district will also soon be providing in-school medical services as well.

“During the summer, the district will be looking at the facilities, the building and carrying out the necessary renovations to create exam rooms,” Bonjour said. “Exam rooms require a hand washing sink and a little bit more like facility requirements at a behavioral health office. The district will be working to make the necessary renovations so that we are compliant with public health code and hopefully we’re able to add medical to the range of services in the new school year.”

Medical services the schools will offer are similar to those provided at a private doctor’s office.

“We do acute chronic care,” Bonjour said. “So, it could be anything from diagnosis to illnesses for strep throat, colds, fevers, aches and pains, stomach disorders to chronic illnesses.”

Additionally, she said physicals are a big part of what they do, to be sure students are compliant with the schools’ required physicals.

The new services are all paid through ESSR (Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) grant money.

“ESSER grant funding supported our ability to pay for the costs associated with the work needed to address the physical space needs as well as start-up costs for equipment for the medical clinics. The partnering organizations use existing funding sources and bill insurance (such as Husky and private insurance). There are no co-pay costs to families,” DiCorpo said.

The need, goals

The need for the services relate to the increase in youth anxiety and social isolation due to being remote during the pandemic, Bonjour said.

“As students returned to in-person learning, we recognized the need to support our students’ mental health and well-being,” she said.

The clinics have been nearly a year in the making.

“Connecticut’s Institute for Communities (CIFC) has been working in New Milford for a good nine months on expanding, bringing behavioral school based services into the district,” Bonjour said.

Bonjour has secured funding to establish school-based health centers in Danbury and Newtown.

The clinics are open one day a week. As more staff is hired, its hours will be increased.

“Our goal is, starting the next school year, to have behavioral health services and to expand to add medical services in all five of the district’s schools,” Bonjour said.

Spreading the word

The clinics are starting to see students and are slowly gaining a presence in the district.

Bonjour said it’s typical for a behavioral health clinician to see about seven to eight visits per day once the clinics get established. If need warrants it, group sessions are often held to accommodate more patients.

The current focus is on spreading the word about the new services offered.

“Right now, the focus is on outreach to school faculty and the community about the service delivery model and the importance of collaboration,” DiCorpo said. “While there are students who are currently receiving services, the goal is to provide understanding of what’s offered to the school community and to develop an understanding of how students will be serviced.”

Towards their outreach efforts, there have been community parent meetings and meet and greets with guidance counselors and social workers.

“That’s our phase over the next month,” Bonjour said. “We slowly build that referral system and identify students that are in need.”

Behavioral Visits are based on the individual need of that patient.

“We try to get the kids in as soon as possible Because the goal is not to have them stay out of school because of lack of care,” Bonjour said.

Additionally, to support academic achievement, every effort is made not to remove students from their academic classes, she said.

“We look at their classroom schedules and we try to pull those students from the classroom schedules that are least academic focused and so if they have a study hall, a lunch period, a special,” said Bonjour, adding exceptions are always made if students are in crisis.

Bonjour said she hopes to get state funding to help expand services. and is reaching out to area legislative leaders to hear their position on mental services in the state. She referenced Substitute Bill No. 1 of the Connecticut General Assembly, “An Act Concerning Childhood Mental And Physical Health Services In Schools.”

“Our long-term goal is to increase timely access to health care so the students are healthy and ready to learn,” Di Corpo said.