The Day – Resources shared at mental health forum in New London

New London — Representatives from across New London came together Tuesday evening to show unity and share the mental health resources available to the community following the shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers last week at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

City Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein, one of the speakers at the mental health forum at the CB Jennings International Elementary Magnet School, said the New London community stands with the victims in Uvalde, as well as with all those who have suffered tragedies, and with community members who have experienced traumatic events.

“Children deserve to feel safe and protected at school and to live lives full of happiness, well-being and hope,” Milstein said. “Children deserve every opportunity to pursue his, her, their possibility, promise and potential.”

She said the people at the forum — titled “A Community Conversation to Learn About the Various Mental Health Supports Available” — including representatives of city, school, community organizations and religious institutions, are working together to try to prevent and address these terrible losses.

Among the resources, Milstein said the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, www.nctsn.org, has a wonderful website.

At the forum, attended by 32 community members and leaders, speakers shared ongoing initiatives to keep people safe and the mental health resources available to people and families. Handouts also were available on topics, such as how to talk to children about tragedy, and attendees wrote down their own ideas on index cards.

Matthew Olson of New London, who has paranoid schizophrenia, said community forums like these are important to raise awareness about mental health. He was there with his best friend, Kyle Freehart, who also has paranoid schizophrenia. They both go to social therapy at Sound Community Services, 21 Montauk Ave.

Olson said mental health needs to be talked about at a high school level, starting in eight or ninth grade, so people can know the warning signs and get help.

Freehart said if mental health was taught more in high school, he believes there would be lower suicide rates among teenagers and less gun violence. He also recommended social therapy for kids of all ages, particularly high schoolers.

City Recreation Director Tommie Major said the school district has great initiatives for counseling. He said it’s important to “change our culture” and “We need to sit down with our children and tell them it’s OK, it’s OK to get help.”

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, also shared resources available to people, such as the 211 system, the school district’s social workers and counselors, and support from religious leaders.

He shared recent state laws concerning firearms, including legislation regarding ghost guns and the storage of a pistol or revolver in a motor vehicle, but said there’s more to be done. He said it’s important to push for common-sense gun legislation and encouraged people to reach out to both federal and state lawmakers. He said he supports a special state legislative session.

Nolan said he thinks “it’s time to stop putting Band-Aids” on it and pass legislation that will keep communities safe.

School district officials also shared a host of items being done to make school buildings safe, including having a core safety team and mental health supports in place.

City Police Chief Brian Wright said the New London Police Department was the first agency in the northeast to have Crisis Intervention Team training, which heightens the skills of active listening, and half of the department’s staff members have been trained so far, with the goal to reach the entire department. He said the department also started High-Five Fridays, in which police officers go to a different school every week to show support for students, as well as milk and cookies events to foster an open dialogue between students and police officers. The department also is looking to implement new programs, such as a youth police academy.

Wright also said the police department is proactive in doing briefings following incidents that take place in New London, a neighboring city, across the country or internationally. The department looks at the incident, tries to make it applicable to the city, and thinks about what they could or would have done if faced with that situation.

Board of Education President Elaine Maynard-Adams said this is the first of what hopefully will be a series of community conversations.

School Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie told The Day that the tragedy in Uvalde continues to be heartbreaking on so many levels. The initial idea for a community forum came from city Mayor Michael Passero, Maynard-Adams and Nolan, and then Ritchie, Rabbi Marc Ekstrand of Temple Emanu-El in Waterford and New London NAACP President Jean Jordan joined in brainstorming. Ritchie said school district officials, school board members, Passero, Nolan, Wright, Milstein, city departments, the NAACP, religious organizations and several New London-based community organizations regularly collaborate to support students and families.

Ritchie said they all believed it was important to review the variety of resources available throughout New London for anyone to be aware of in case someone is in need of mental health or social service supports.

“We also wanted to show our team approach and share various contacts available so that people knew who to turn to if they or someone they know is in need of help,” she said, adding that the officials also wanted to bring people together to network and “to share their strengths to contribute to the shared aims of New London being a welcoming, supportive, and proactive community.”

“It is our hope citizens of New London know there is a network of people throughout the city who care and are available and this network continues to grow as even more people rise to show compassion, kindness, concern, and step forward to help plan and implement positive actions,” Ritchie said. “Mental health matters. The community of New London embraces supports for all.”

Ekstrand, who was representing the Greater New London Clergy Association, said the Uvalde shooting attacks people’s sense of community and he encouraged people to talk to one another and pull together.

k.drelich@theday.com

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