Jill Barron, MD, MHS, has been quietly ramping up plans to conduct a critical needs assessment of mental health and support response since arriving in Newtown in late February. But the experienced trauma specialist who worked with New York firefighters post 9/11 made her first local public appearance, receiving an official welcome when she was introduced to the Board of Selectmen March 18.
In the aftermath of the 12/14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Town of Newtown retained Dr Barron to serve as a trauma mental health advisor working through the Newtown Health District. The outcome of her planned work will ensure that mental health services are coordinated and delivered in the most effective and efficient manner to those in need.
Health District Director Donna Culbert explained to the selectmen Monday evening that since the Sandy Hook School incident, the town has been flooded with resources. She said that as Dr Barron completes her work during the coming months, health officials and community leaders will have a much better understanding of how to best coordinate and apply those available resources to people in the community who may need it most.
Dr Barron said her initial focus will appropriately be members of the Sandy Hook School community and local responders, who may have witnessed some of the most horrible images resulting from the violence that descended on Newtown that day.
“We are going to be looking at needs, building capacity for care, accounting for long-term needs and how they may change over time,” Dr Barron added. Praxair, Inc, headquartered in Danbury, has made a $50,000 grant to the Newtown community to support her hiring.
Maintaining a focus on broad needs is of paramount importance for the well-know child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. And it is through that lens that Dr Barron will be working with local leadership to conduct a needs assessment to identify impacted populations and gaps in existing services. Following the needs assessment, current provider groups will be evaluated for capacity to provide effective and coordinated trauma-informed care.
She will be working directly with Ms Culbert to strengthen existing support, infrastructure, and leadership for the local public health system to most effectively serve the needs of the Newtown community.
Working Post 9/11
Dr Barron studied at the Department of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and at the Yale Child Study Center. At Yale University, she completed the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program where she examined health care delivery systems and the unmet mental health needs of children and adolescents nationally.
She brings to Newtown expertise treating children, adults, and families following traumatic events, and has previously engaged in helping communities think broadly about their mental health needs in the wake of tragic events.
Dr Barron remains a consulting psychiatrist to the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) and treats firefighters with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) secondary to the events of September 11. And she consults to first responder communities locally and nationally post-tragic events including the recent murder of responding firefighters in Webster, N.Y., just days after the Sandy Hook shootings.
She has also co-written two book chapters on the neurobiology of PTSD.
During an interview with The Bee, Ms Culbert and Dr Barron stressed that the trauma specialist will not be handling any one-on-one clinical interactions, in favor of applying her previous experience to aid a situation even she admits has never occurred before.
She expressed concerns for individuals in the community who are just beginning to come to grips with the 12/14 tragedy, and is taking a long view on Newtown’s mental health and behavioral support needs.
“Not everyone seeks help right away after a tragedy of this scope. And not everyone will go to — or need to go to — a psychiatrist or psychologist,” she said. “Some will [discuss personal family concerns with] a member of the clergy, or their pediatrician or family physician. So we want to help arm the community care force to recognize that certain issues could be rooted in the tragedy.”
As she worked with New York firefighters and their families post 9/11, Dr Barron said she learned about behavior issues ratcheting up, and worked to help responders, their managers, and their loved ones to recognize the signs.
“When you arm first responder communities and leadership so they understand what to expect, it helps them to respond appropriately when someone is acting out,” she said, adding that often following a traumatic event individuals can become more irritable.
“In some cases, children often regress in their behavior,” she said. “So we need to recognize that, even when the behavior shows up in children who attend other schools — even children in neighboring communities. In Webster, we tried to give people a set of different lenses to look at the behavior of their children, spouses, co-workers, even themselves.”
Ready When Ready
Another valuable lesson Dr Barron learned was to be sure, no matter how far past a traumatic event, that communities maintain a point of access when and if individuals finally decide they are ready to ask for help.
“After 9/11, we realized the best thing we could do was to meet people where they’re at,” she said. “You can’t force a person to access care, but being there when they are ready, while providing information if they need it in the interim, has proven to work well for those who might have otherwise decided to go it alone.
“I’m still seeing first-time responders from 9/11 who have decided to seek help even this far out from the event.”
Dr Barron said her work will take on a short-, mid- and long-term focus.
“In the short term, we will be assessing needs, then mid-term, we’ll be looking at the capacity to meet those needs. Then we turn our attention to what else Newtown needs to do in the long run,” she said.
Ms Culbert added that some of the things Dr Barron will learn about the community now could change in the coming months, by next September, at the one-year anniversary point, and far beyond.
“It’s all about developing and strengthening relationships among the communities of people that we know,” Ms Culbert said.
Dr Barron likens it to “taking a broad temperature in a variety of ways with a variety of community partners.” And then it is about “figuring out what makes the best sense going forward.”
Ms Culbert observed that while the close-knit nature of Newtown makes recovering from 12/14 very difficult, she believes that deep sense of caring for one’s neighbors whether they are known or not, will also be Newtown’s greatest source of strength as it grapples with recovery and healing.
In a prepared statement, Mrs Llodra said the need for a mental health consultant with expertise in trauma is of paramount importance to Newtown.
“We are confident that Dr Barron will serve us well in this regard,” Mrs Llodra said. “Every member of our community and beyond has been impacted in some way by this horrendous event and we believe it’s important to provide those closest to the tragedy the opportunity for professional assistance.”