State focuses on mental health, gun violence crises made worse by COVID

As life returns to normal in Connecticut, the first state in the nation to fully vaccinate 50 percent of its adult population against COVID-19, the pandemic’s mental health toll wages on.

Low infection rates, declining hospitalizations and deaths in the single-digits are all signs the state is “making real progress when it comes to our physical health,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday, but he added, “we still do have some healing to do and a lot of that is related to mental health.”

A spike in mental health related calls to United Way’s 211 call center is evidence of that, the governor said. Community health centers including East Hartford-based InterCommunity Health Care, are seeing an increase in “psychiatric calls for mental health issues and substance abuse issues,” CEO Kim Beauregard said, joining Lamont at his virtual coronavirus briefing Monday.

“People are stressed. They are tired,” Beauregard said. “Many people, especially people of color, have seen their friends and family die. So many changes have happened in our work lives, our school lives with our children.”

That doesn’t end when the illness eases.

“We cannot underestimate the toll that it has taken,” Beauregard said. “We have been in survival mode.”

The Lamont administration is proposing to spend $20 million in federal pandemic relief to address adult mental health needs over the next two years, including access to 24-hour mobile psychiatric crisis units.

Across the country, the pandemic has led to greater demand for mental health support. Americans are also consuming more alcohol, in large part due to increased stress brought on by the pandemic, studies show. Overdose deaths are also on the rise.

In the last month, more than 9,000 calls were made to 211 regarding mental health and addiction services, with the majority requesting mental health services. Nearly one-third of callers requested crisis intervention or suicide prevention services. Substance abuse and addiction services made up the rest of the requests.

People calling 211 with a mental health crisis can be referred to places such InterCommunity, which sends out mobile crisis teams that include licensed clinic social workers at all hours of the day and night.

“So, we can get them through the night, through the crisis and then refer them and help them to get to all the resources they may need the next day,” Beauregard said.

Some of the stress of the past 14 months has been reflected in an increase in gun violence, Lamont said. That’s another area the administration is targeting with one-time federal funding, $3 million over the next two years, with a focus on “evidence-based strategies.”

“While many things did slow down or stop, gun violence was not one of those things,” said Jackie Santiago, Compass Youth Collaborative, which goes into hospitals after a shooting to help provide resources to victims and prevent any retaliation as a result of the violence.

This violence disproportionately affects communities of color, who have also suffered higher COVID-19 death rates during the pandemic.

Referencing the deaths of 3-year-old Randell Jones and 16-year-old Ja’Mari Preston in Hartford last month, Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said young black men in Connecticut are 39 times more likely than young white men to get murdered with a gun.

Gun homicides are up 50 percent since last year, Stein said, with Waterbury experiencing a six-fold increase.

“The Covid pandemic has only made this problem worse so there’s an urgent need to put more resources into community based violence prevention efforts,” Stein said.

Stein’s group has pushed the Lamont administration to establish an Office of Community Gun Violence Prevention that would seek out funding and spend it on “evidence-based, community-centric programs and strategies to reduce street-level gun violence in Connecticut’s larger urban centers.”

Violence prevention programs such as Compass, with backing of Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly, are calling for more consistent state funding.

“The reality is violence was the first pandemic that we faced in our community,” Santiago said. “COVID only highlighted the impact we’re feeling due to poverty, lack of policies and other things.”

julia.bergman@hearstmediact.com