Advocates decry state closure of Hartford mental health residential beds for young adults
The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is closing a residential program in the North End of Hartford that serves young adults with mental health conditions. At the same time, community advocates say there’s a rising demand locally and nationally for these services.
“We need more beds. We need more programs like this, not a cut, not to shut it down,” said Lori Sansabrino, a state mental health worker. “This is just beyond, I just can’t believe it.”
The 10-bed Hilltop Residential Program, which provides 24-hour care and support to young adults 18 to 25 years old with psychiatric needs, is located on Blue Hills Avenue in the North End of Hartford. The program accounts for about a third of the city’s DMHAS-operated young adult residential beds.
DMHAS’s decision to permanently close the program was due to the building lease not being renewed, department spokesman Art Mongillo said in an email Tuesday. The program’s five clients will be relocated to other residential openings in Hartford.
Sansabrino, who has worked at Hilltop for 10 years and is a member of health care labor union District 1199, SEIU, has doubts there were many efforts into finding an alternative location to house the program.
“This is a safe haven for our clients, and to put them out just in any old place, meeting new people — it’s hard enough when you don’t have a mental illness to do that,” she said.
Officials from the state Office of Policy and Management wrote in an Oct. 19 letter to union representatives that Hilltop will close Nov. 19. No employees will lose their jobs, but they will instead be reassigned to other positions.
As for program clients, the state did not provide the names of specific facilities to which people will be transferred. The situation has left Hilltop residents like 23-year-old Diemen to wonder what comes next. Connecticut Public is withholding his last name for privacy reasons.
“I think it’s kind of inconsiderate for the workers, it’s kind of not fair for the clients,” he said. “There are still some transitional skills that need to be in place for the clients. We kind of know we need to learn some more stuff while being here.”
The voluntary supervised apartment program is a small part of DMHAS’s statewide young adult services program, which supports about 1,500 people annually, according to the department. Of those served, about 260 people are in residential programs throughout Connecticut.
A significant portion of young adult program clients are those aging out of the Department of Children and Families system and who have been diagnosed with a major mental illness, according to the state’s website.
At Hilltop, residents learn skills in illness management and recovery, community integration, and educational and vocational development. The goal is to prepare young adults for independent living after their stay, which often lasts up to two years.
Diemen said in the six months he’s lived at Hilltop, the program has helped him enroll in community college where he’s studying music, get food assistance, maintain medical and therapy appointments, learn about managing income, and get advice on interacting with his peers.
“I’d really like it if Hilltop were to continue on, because for future generations,” he said, “and I would really want to learn more coping skills and also meet new peers while staying here.”
The loss of young adult residential beds in Hartford will be temporary. Mongillo said by early next year, the state plans to establish 10 new beds “at a higher level of care so there is no reduction of mental health services for the 18- to 25-year-old population.”
In the meantime, Avis Ward said she worries that the Hilltop closure will hurt an already marginalized community. Ward is a case manager and union worker at the residential program, and said a majority of clients there are Black, brown, Latino and other residents of color.
“Most of our clients already have a history of being neglected and traumatized. This only forces them to feel that they are being abruptly displaced from where they feel they’re most safe,” she said during a union news conference Tuesday morning.
On top of that, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the city is sharing in national trends around how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health crises in both children and adults.
The frequency of anxiety and depression symptoms among U.S. adults as of June remained elevated compared to levels in 2019, according to federal survey results released this month.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts increased among girls 12 to 17 years old beginning in summer of 2020, and rates remained elevated through May of this year.
The Hartford Courant reported this month that Connecticut children’s hospitals have seen the number of children seeking urgent behavioral health care triple since the summer.
And the death toll in Connecticut from drug overdoses has already reached 993 as of the first week in September.
“I would have hoped that at this moment we would be expanding these services and expanding access to these services rather than restricting access further,” Bronin said.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (Nacional de Prevención del Suicidio 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat or dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255), or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.