Clinical Social Worker Stephen Beck has headed up a community drop-in center at Reed since shortly after the 12/14 tragedy. But this week he told The Newtown Bee that despite a waiting list of experienced counselors hoping to assist Newtowners through their grieving and recovery process, there are comparatively few visitors seeking their expertise.
This news was not received well by one local mother whose daughter benefited greatly from the center, and who did not begin using the drop-in services for weeks after the incident.
“We were very busy in the days following [12/14], but it’s since trailed off to the point where we are only open two days a week,” Mr Beck said. “We are sure there is still a need, maybe a greater need today then in those days after the shooting. But I’m not sure people know we are still there and available at no cost to them — even if they attend every session.”
Currently, he said, the center is hosting five to ten visitors per session. The drop-in services are available every Wednesday from 5 to 8 pm, and Saturdays from 9 am to noon. But he is not sure how long that will last if community members have no evident need for the services of dozens of top-notch mental health professionals.
“We’ve got some counselors willing to drive in from an hour away because they want to help,” Mr Beck said. “At any time we have at least five clinicians on site who can see 20 or more visitors per shift. We also have others anxious to help, but we keep saying No to them because the demand is just not there.”
Mr Beck believes many people think the counseling costs money, but besides underwriting from Danbury-based Family & Children’s Aid, the entire operation is virtually all volunteer-driven.
He said for visitors who bond with particular counselors, there are options for them to see that clinician any time the clinician is on the schedule. Or visitors who want to use that clinician off site can make private arrangements to possibly become a client after consulting with them at the Reed site.
A number of visitors have come back for one or two additional sessions, he added, and that all participating volunteers are qualified by members of The Connecticut Psychiatric Association.
“Parents in particular want to be sure they are supporting their children correctly,” he said. “Once they get that reassurance, they may or may not return.”
Individual sessions at the drop-in center can range from 30 minutes or less to several hours if that is the amount of time needed by the visitor. While regular visitors may see various counselors depending on how frequently they come to Reed School, Mr Beck tries to keep at least a few regular faces around for every session.
Animals On Site
He also tries to keep several therapy animals and their owners available, which appeals greatly to children who attend.
“The animals seem to provide a great healing influence,” he said. “We’re using most of the same animals every session to enhance continuity for regular visitors.”
There is also an art room in case children or other visitors are inspired to work through their grief creatively.
“It’s also very useful when we’re meeting with a parent, because it’s a place for their children to go to do a craft project or other creative activity,” Mr Beck said, adding that art room volunteers have also remained consistent since the center opened.
He encourages anyone affected by the 12/14 events, or anyone detecting issues in loved ones like difficulty sleeping, social withdrawal, curtailed eating, or other behavior changes, to just drop by to talk.
“We don’t want people to feel stigmatized thinking this is some sort of formal psychiatric clinic. It’s really just a great place to come and share your thoughts,” he said. “The next six months or so is going to be the most concerning period for those affected by the shootings. It’s a time when negative emotions can generate negative behaviors, or reignite past behaviors that may push people’s coping skills to the edge.”
Tracy Terry was among the parents who attended the drop-in center after she learned the services were still available.
“I thought they might have closed,” she said. “But since we got the schedule, we’ve attended four times and we have plans to attend more often.”
Ms Terry’s family is close to one Sandy Hook School family who lost a child. And her 11-year-old daughter Kayla is best friends with the sibling of a victim.
“So she was very strong for her friend, and I think she didn’t take time to try and grieve herself,” Ms Terry said. “After a few weeks I noticed she was not eating well, her school performance was suffering, she was starting to nap, and there seemed to be a higher level of anxiety.”
Coping Skills Helped
But after the very first session, where the mother and daughter learned some “coping skills,” Kayla told her mom that she had a good night’s sleep for the first time in weeks. Nonetheless, it was not easy to convince her daughter to attend a drop-in session.
“But I explained to her that if she had a broken leg, she would need to get it fixed. And it is the same with a broken heart,” Ms Terry said. “So Kayla said she would give me five minutes. Of course we stayed longer, and then she asked to go back.”
Ms Terry said she did not know what to do at first when the behavior changes began, but thanks to a robust supply of supportive literature available at the center, and all the great resources for children and parents, her family is back on the right track.
“As a parent, I learned to ask the right questions, and to learn how to handle these behavior situations when they come up,” she said. “Now I’m working on getting others to go — now that some of our friends are seeing how well Kayla is doing.”
When she first contacted The Bee hoping to promote the Reed drop-in center, Ms Terry was asked if she wanted to provide her observations anonymously. But she said No.
“I want to put our names to this so others won’t feel stigmatized,” she said. “Parents and loved ones need to begin addressing any issues they are having now, so it doesn’t come back to make them suffer worse later on.
“I saw the light going out in this child,” she said of her daughter. “And I didn’t want her facing a future with any more challenges than she will already have to handle. I don’t want her seeking refuge in unhealthy behaviors, relationships or substance abuse.”
Mr Beck said if more people begin visiting the center, he can add more days and extended hours immediately, because he still has so many capable clinicians just waiting to come to Newtown and help. He is also looking at expanding collateral services to offer things like healing yoga or tai chi, all at no cost.
“We just need enough people to do it,” Mr Beck said. “The last thing I want to see is this center closing, and forcing people who need assistance to travel to Danbury for services.
To learn more about the drop-in center, call Stephen Beck at 203-205-2656 or e-mail him at Stephen.Beck@fcaweb.org.