Concord Journal, April 9, 2017: Organizations step up to support mental health services in Concord

By Henry Schwan

When Concord residents head to Town Meeting later this month, they will vote on dozens of warrant articles.  One that will not be voted on is a request for mental health services.  Town Manager Chris Whelan said it was a category eliminated from the budget in the mid-1990s.  However, several organizations have stepped up, supplying money and resources to help fill the gap.  Whelan said there was a “modest” amount of money for mental health programs when he became Concord town manager in January 1993, but there hasn’t been money in the budget for approximately 20 years.  “Society is beginning to realize there are consequences when people are unhealthy, physically and mentally,” Whelan said.

Local aid from the state has fallen — percentage-wise — over Whelan’s tenure, while budgets continue to rise, and one of the casualties is town funding for mental health programs.  According to the Concord Finance Department, state aid climbed from $3.6 million in 2000 to $4.1 million in 2015, but it didn’t keep pace with escalating budgets, which increased from $17 million to $37.6 million over the same period.

Whelan said local aid’s percentage of the town budget has been cut in half over his tenure in Concord — from 10 to 4.6 percent — and he said Concord has relied primarily on rising property taxes to make up for the lost revenue.  Real estate taxes represent 86.2 percent of town revenue, according to Whelan.

Donations make a difference

Donations are a revenue source helping cover the shortfall, Whelan said, and those dollars have been used for myriad expenditures, from refurbishing athletic fields and the purchase of property to improvements at the library.  Concord has also relied on donations and support from a variety of organizations to provide mental health services.

The Concord-Carlisle Community Chest is one of those organizations, according to Executive Director Karen Bechtel. It receives monetary donations from individuals and businesses, and farms the money out to organizations, including some that provide mental health services.

The Community Chest works with Eliot Community Human Services in Lexington to help subsidize counseling fees for 150 residents not covered by health insurance and partly funds the salaries of Concord’s community services coordinator and youth services coordinator. Through its Cornerstone Fund, it provided $10,000 to the Concord Police Department for crisis intervention training for officers interacting with suspects facing mental health and substance abuse issues, and the Community Chest partially funds several positions at the Concord Council on Aging, including social worker, outreach worker and social services coordinator.

“Mental health issues impact the individual, family and broader community. It’s worth helping out,” Bechtel said. “As long as the community feels it’s an important issue, (the Community Chest) will continue to support mental health issues.”

Interface Referral Service

Concord residents receive referrals for mental health services through the Williams James College Interface Referral Service in Newton.  Heather Byrns, a licensed mental health counselor and clinical supervisor at Interface Referral Service, said her organization has a dual contract with Concord and Carlisle to provide free referral services for residents.  Byrns said residents call a help line and speak with clinicians, including a licensed mental health counselor, psychologist or doctoral student at William James College.  The intake process takes about 30 minutes, according to Byrns, and callers are connected with services that accept their insurance, are logistically convenient and address particular mental health challenges.

There is also follow-up to ensure callers are connected with the services they need.

“We’re helping families understand their mental health needs, and be consumers of mental health services,” Byrnes said, adding that the Interface Referral Service worked with 22 Concord residents, based on figures in the organization’s most-recent report to Concord officials.

Byrns said since the contract with Concord and Carlisle was signed in February 2013, 228 families have received referral services, and issues run the gamut, including anxiety, depression and family-related issues.

School mental health services

Mental health services in the Concord Public Schools are funded outside the town budget.  The Concord and Concord-Carlisle Regional School Districts have separate budgets, and, according to Kristen Herbert, director of teaching and learning, all Concord schools provide mental health services.  Guidance counselors and a school psychologist are in every school, Herbert said, and there are “social groups” for students encountering mental health challenges inside and outside the schools, such as parents going through a divorce.

For students facing ongoing mental health issues like depression and anxiety, Herbert said options include a 504 plan and an Individualized Education Program (IEP).  The 504 plan, according to Herbert, centers on a school counselor working with a student and parents to make sure all bases are covered.

The IEP focus is on a student with a disability, and it involves a team approach to care — special education, guidance counselor, psychologist, parents and school administrators. The team is in place for three years, according to Herbert, and depending on circumstances, the care plan is revised, and assessment meetings are then held annually.

Herbert said there is a social and emotional curriculum for all students, kindergarten through 12th grade, including topics like healthy relationships and anti-bullying techniques. In the case of acute crisis, Herbert said students are referred to outside services, like Williams James College Interface Referral Service. According to Herbert, the Concord and Concord-Carlisle Regional School Districts joined the service several years ago, at the time of several suicides at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School.

According to Herbert, school guidance counselors connect a family with the help line so the student can receive necessary services.

Herbert said as budgets become tighter, the Concord school administration has never considered cutting mental health services.  “We want students mentally able to learn, so they can succeed and grow personally,” Herbert said.

Indirect mental health services

Indirect mental health services are also provided at Concord-Carlisle Adult and Community Education, which Herbert oversees.

Mindfulness and yoga classes are offered at Adult and Community Education, and there is also a separate entity at the Ripley Building called the Center for Parents and Teachers.

It offers programs for parents and teachers that provide training and resources for families facing a variety of challenges, including mental health issues.

The center is supported by contributions from parents and businesses, and a grant from the Concord-Carlisle Community Chest.

“It’s wonderful,” Herbert said of the center.

Follow Henry Schwan on Twitter @henrycojo.