Darien mental health study looks at pandemic's effect: anxiety up, teen binge drinking down

DARIEN — Over the course of the pandemic, Darien residents reported a significant increase in mental health issues, a survey has found — and medical experts are calling behavioral health the town's "most concerning health priority." 

According to Stamford Health’s latest 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment, a three-year assessment of medical needs in Stamford and Darien, Darien residents reported the largest increase in mental health issues compared with Stamford and the overall state population. 

Between 2018 and 2021, the number of Darien residents who said they felt depressed or hopeless more than half of the days or every day in a two-week span jumped from 2 percent to 8 percent. 

In that same timeframe, the number of Darien respondents who said they felt little interest or pleasure in doing things most days jumped from 3 percent to 9 percent. 

Behind hypertension, mental health was the second leading cause of hospitalization among Darien residents, estimated at a rate of 450 per 10,000 residents in the 2022 study, up from 283 per 10,000 residents reported in the 2019 study.

When presenting at a panel at Darien Library, Stamford Health vice president Ben Wade said teens were frequently cited during the research period as one of the most affected demographics.

“Children, we heard in our interviews, are exhibiting more extreme behaviors in school,” said Wade, who is also the chief strategy officer. “Administrators noted an increase in mood disorders, severe depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation in older public school students.”

While the study includes two years of a pandemic, Georgette Harrison of the Child Guidance Center of South Connecticut said the mental health crisis in Darien preceded the pandemic but grew worse as demand for resources skyrocketed.

Between 2020 and 2021, she said, the center received a sharp increase in demand for mental health services, rising 40 percent in Darien and 31 percent in the center’s Southern Connecticut jurisdiction.

Requests for mobile crisis intervention services — rapid assessments intended to minimize emergency hospitalization — also shot up in the course of a year. Calls about anxiety rose 160 percent, depression as a primary cause rose 13 percent and calls regarding trauma grew by 1,800 percent.

“The youth mental health crisis is very much hitting our town, not just because of the deaths by suicide in the town but also because of just a sharp increase in demand for services that we have seen,” Harrison said.

She also noted that the need and subsequent demand for mental health resources is not limited to children. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended all adults between 18 and 65 years old be screened for anxiety. 

Another significant behavioral concern in Darien was substance abuse leading to overdosing, the study showed.

The third leading cause of death in Darien for those younger than 75 was poisoning, including alcohol poisoning and overdoses. The number of overdose-related deaths grew by 5 percent, higher than the rate across the state. 

In the assessment, Stamford Health noted that "providers have noticed an increase in use of all substances as a form of 'self-treatment,'" in the community.

Despite the rise in poisoning, the number of residents who reported binge drinking dropped substantially across the state, including a drop from 31 percent to 10 percent in Darien, the study also showed.

The number of teens who reported consuming alcohol also decreased over the pandemic, though Harrison expressed concern that alcohol abuse issues are starting "as early as seventh grade."

Harrison theorized that the lockdown may have had something to do with the decrease because teens would not have had the same level of access to alcohol or drugs. 

“A lot of the ways in which teens access and use substances or with friends is in other people's homes or they were going out into community settings,” she said. “During the lockdown, that couldn't happen.”

Going forward, Stamford Health said it will continue its progress in behavioral health, focusing on improving access to mental health treatment resources. The previous study’s goals focused more on awareness-oriented interventions.

Stamford Health partnered with the behavioral health organization Liberation Programs on outpatient services and increasing behavioral health screenings. 

Stamford Health is also considering developing peer support models for patients, including recovery coaches and specialists, and a peer support center that the group said has been in the works since 2020 but was paused during the pandemic.

Another new addition to the behavioral health goals is advocacy, working with local groups and legislators to increase availability and access to behavioral health resources.

Stamford Health will submit its final community health implementation plan by February 2023.