Darien Considers Urgent Assessment Program with New Canaan

Darien residents could have access to urgent mental health assessments, if the town decides to participate in a new pilot program with New Canaan.

Darien Considers Urgent Assessment Program with New Canaan
A look at the mental health challenges. Courtesy of Silver Hill Hospital.

“We’re in a time of unprecedented mental health need—in the country, in the world, and certainly here in Fairfield County,” Dr. Andrew Gerber, president and medical director of Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, told the Darien Board of Selectmen.

Gerber said that need led his hospital to begin working with the town of New Canaan to develop a program to try and get residents the help they need faster.

“One of the things that we hear over and over again—even in an area that has a relatively large number of providers—it is hard to get in,” he said.

That can be challenging, especially because if a person asks for help and then has to wait five weeks, there’s a chance they change their mind or the problem becomes even more severe, Gerber said.

“We want to intervene earlier–when somebody says ‘I want help,’ but it’s not at the crisis level yet,” he said.

That’s how Gerber and his team developed the urgent assessment program with New Canaan. It would operate like an urgent mental care service that would allow residents to call, get assessed and have an initial consultation within 48 hours, and then get connected to other services. The program would seek to bill insurance when possible, but the town would cover the remaining expenses, allowing it to be free to residents.

Gerber said the program would initially have five slots per week, with each slot being three hours, so residents could get assessed and also meet with social workers and get connected to other providers for whatever followup treatment the assessment showed they needed.

“When you have existing partnerships, we’re able to find people who are willing to take our patients,” he said.

New Canaan has approached Darien as a partner to pilot this program and see if that’s the right number of slots, or if there are other ways such a program could better meet the community’s needs.

Courtesy of Darien Board of Selectmen

The goal is for the program to break even, Gerber said.

Courtesy of the Darien Board of Selectmen

Gerber said that if the demand was greater than expected, they would create a steering group to try and figure out how to fund the additional expenses, but that this is a “reasonable guess” for where to start.

Members of the Board of Selectmen had questions, particularly about making sure that if they participated in the program, their residents would have equal access.

“I’m a little skeptical of this,” said Selectmen Jon Zagrodzky. Zagrodzky questioned spending the $250,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funds and also questioned the role that the local government should play in a program like this.

“I'm just worried that we have not thought through the implications of two local town governments coming together to fund a little piece of this,” he said.

Gerber said that he thought this program helped pay “to get people initial entry and access to a system that feels prohibitive, feels hard to connect to.”

“To me, that’s a good place government can help,” he said.

Others said they weren’t sure if assessments would help residents who still needed to then go elsewhere for additional treatment.

Gerber said that the initial assessment helps direct what kind of treatment a person would need, which makes it a little easier to navigate the system.

“When you have a good first assessment, you can target the referral specifically,” he said, adding that their partnerships also help open doors for their patients.

Ali Ramsteck, LCSW, director of Darien’s Human Services Department, voiced her support for the urgent assessments.

“I think this would be an invaluable resource to our town,” she said. “Over the last six weeks in particular, the amount of parents that I've spoken to who are scared—if their children have depression anxiety, if they’ve ever mentioned the idea of dying,” she said. “To be able to get in and be seen by a professional, even that initial intervention can make a big difference.”

First Selectwoman Monica McNally said the board would seek to gather more community feedback and revisit the topic soon. The program is scheduled to start in July in New Canaan, so a decision would have to be made before then.