Coronavirus has more families seeking mental health help for kids

Published: Jun. 30, 2020 at 3:28 PM EDT
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More families are seeking mental health help for kids as the pandemic goes on. A Central Vermont mental health services agency tells us they're already getting dozens of new referrals for school-based and alternative education programs, and they expect more this fall. Our Cat Viglienzoni talked with families about how they navigated mental health care during COVID-19.

"She's kind of a challenged child," said Tracy Horton of Barre.

Horton is talking about her granddaughter, Makenna. She took over raising the 10-year-old in April at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She calls the school-based mental health help offered by Washington County Mental Health Services a godsend.

"I don't know if I could do this on my own. I know I couldn't do this on my own. She's a very tough child," Horton said. "They bring a lot out in her that nobody else really can."

Similar praise from Montpelier mom Frances Talbert.

"They basically saved us," Talbert said.

Her husband passed away recently from brain cancer. The mom of four says she turned to the mental health services agency for help, eventually enrolling her 11-year-old, Gus, in their alternative education program ChOICE. She says during the pandemic the agency went above and beyond to make sure that they didn't fall through the cracks.

"They kept connecting with us and staying in touch and making sure that we had everything that we needed," Talbert said. "That was really incredible."

Washington County Mental Health Services tells me calls for services have increased during the pandemic and so have referrals. They tell me they're going to have to hire dozens of more staffers to meet the needs of their clients down the line. However, how to pay for that remains a bit of a concern as the economic fallout from the pandemic continues.

"It didn't take very long before our phones began to ring," said Nicole Grenier, the director of Children, Youth and Family Services at Washington County Mental Health Services.

Grenier says the pandemic's emotional toll added challenges for families already connected with their system and brought in new clients who hadn't needed their services before. Their staffers have been staying connected via calls, video chats and some in-person visits to the homes to drop off food or supplies. Their kitchen upped production to 325 meals per day to meet families' needs. Despite the pandemic, their goal remains the same:

"We can think of it as a wraparound model, being able to wrap the child and the family with supportive services that are available to them as needed," Grenier said.

Their summer camp programming began last week, something she told us families had been looking forward to. They're planning on serving more than 100 kids for six weeks despite the COVID-19 regulatory challenges.