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Fairfield,schoolofficials team up to raise mental health awareness

Journal Inquirer - 8/27/2023

Aug. 27—The collaborative has organized a six-part speaker series with clinical professionals so members of the public, especially parents, can learn strategies and ask questions about how to handle mental health issues and find support services.

Dana Dorfman, a social worker based in New York City, will speak at Fairfield Warde High School for the first event, titled "Parenting Teens in the Age of Anxiety" from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 13. Five more monthly speaker events will take place from October through March, excluding December, on topics including substance abuse, eating disorders, depression and suicide, male mental health and online activity.

"Each of them will give strategies, solutions, red flags to look for, things to be aware of and nuts-and-bolts solutions and then answer questions from the audience. And we dedicated a pretty decent amount of the 90 minutes to the questions and answers," said Jessica Bloomberg, an embedded licensed clinical social worker with the Police Department.

Bloomberg, Julie DeMarco, the director of the Human and Social Services Department, and Maureen Sullivan, the director of student support and mental health services at Fairfield Public Schools, have spearheaded the collaborative after reviewing prevalent mental health issues they noticed in town.

Bloomberg said issues tied to anxiety, depression, suicidal risk, eating disorders and social media "kept repeating themselves," which motivated the group to organize a joint effort to raise awareness about how to care for mental health with support from clinical specialists.

The collaborative leaders assembled the speaker lineup from contacts they've made throughout their careers, Bloomberg said. She and Dorfman worked together at the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut in Stamford in the 1990s, and she's compiled a list of licensed professionals of various specialties as she's developed contacts as a social worker.

DeMarco said she's noticed that families have been unaware of where to find available mental health services, and the speaker series could offer the guidance from health professionals that can direct them to the appropriate health service and teach them how their behavior could affect their children's mental health.

"It addresses parent anxiety and stress and how that impacts children and students," she said. "And that's important because parents need to know that all that stress and anxiety they're feeling is totally impacting their kids."

She said some of the speakers have offered pro bono service for the series, and funding from the FPS and social services education budgets have covered the events.

DeMarco said her department has seen a rise in demand for "short-term financial support" since the community emerged from isolation following the COVID-19 pandemic. She said the societal return from the pandemic has since unloaded a buildup of stress and anxiety as sources of emergency assistance, like the student loan payment freeze and public health coverage benefits, scales back. Counseling and therapy options have meanwhile remained in short supply, she said.

"There's not as many services and supports, and now that COVID's over, that causes so much anxiety for all ages," she said. "You can't make the bills, and you can't find mental health help. And you can't buy your back-to-school supplies. There's such tension and stress."

Bloomberg said the collaborative will gauge feedback from parents to determine which projects to tackle next. The leaders plan to continue the joint initiative beyond March as long as the speaker series gets enough attention and support from the public, she said.

Bloomberg and DeMarco said the collaborative could organize training for clinical professionals, like therapists or social workers in the school district or those working for agencies and social services.

"I'm very proud to be a part of the collaborative, but I'm also very proud to live in a community and to live in a town that supports the collaborative that all three departments and the town have been very supportive of our putting this together and working together on this," she said. "It's unusual, and I think that's really special."

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