The holiday season is often characterized as a time of joy and cheer, yet it may sometimes carry an additional burden of stress, even for the youngest members of a community. Disruptions to routine, or difficulty navigating some of the extra social demands related to seasonal celebrations may be especially trying for some children. When anxieties are compounded by other stresses some families feel—due to financial, job-loss or family-strife causes—it may be harder for some kids to cope, now and year round.
Wilton Social Services has developed programs to focus on children in the community who may be dealing with these and other challenges, through its Wilton Youth Services department. While the kinds of services offered to children and their families vary from town to town in the surrounding area, Wilton’s Youth Services has two mental health clinicians on staff—Colleen Fawcett, who is the department’s coordinator, and Margaret Creeth, the program manager.
What that means as a result, said Fawcett, is that Wilton’s Social Services department can provide mental health services directly to the population in the form of clinical counseling, in addition to making referrals to outside resources.
“If somebody calls us—either a parent, a teenager, the police department or the schools—and they’re looking for mental health services for a child or their family, then we may serve them here, but we’re really set up to do more short term work—group, family or individual. Many times we’ll connect people to other resources in town—whether that’s a sports organization, the Teen Center, the Wilton Y, the Wilton Library—so that kids are connected and that they have whatever they really need given the particular situation, to develop healthily,” she explained.
“What happens periodically, we may get calls from the schools, the library, or the Y, and they may say they see a need for such-and-such. We may know someplace in the community that’s doing support for that need, but if they’re not, sometimes we’ll say, ‘Let’s get that done somehow. We’ll do it ourselves.’”
Such was the case recently when the department decided to put together a “Changing Families” support group for children who are dealing with separation or divorce.
“We’d heard of a couple of kids who had a situation of divorce or separation in their family and we were asked if we could do a support group for that, and we said, ‘Sure,’” Fawcett explained, adding that five participants for the group would be an ideal target, and they’d focus on children in the range of 8- to 11-years-old.
Fawcett said the department is still looking for a couple more children to participate and complete the group before they can begin.
For a topic as difficult as divorce, Fawcett said there are two factors at play that impact a participant’s ability to be helped by this kind of group work.
“Kids don’t want to be exposed, especially if they feel they are alone with a situation. On the other hand, they don’t want to be alone; they don’t want to be the only person who is dealing with a given problem. That’s the beauty of a support group: it’s knowing you’re not alone in a situation, and some of the feelings you’re having are universal—and can be coped with. Sometimes kids learn better from each other in terms of how to cope and what a feeling is like. It’s helping kids identify what some of the feelings are, and to not feel alone with those feelings. There’s a real power in not feeling alone.”
Ideally, Fawcett said, they try for an eight week start-to-finish process of forming a group, creating bonds amongst the members, and lastly closure after the work is done before moving on.
While there aren’t any conclusive figures that the department has about a rising numbers of divorces in Wilton after the last few years of economic decline, Fawcett did hear a theory she thought might explain why there seemed to be a growing need to help more kids cope with the topic: Unhappy couples may stay together during downturns in the economy because it’s expensive to go through divorce; as a result some kids are coping with the stress of being with parents who are unhappy because they’re staying together for financial reasons. “That was pretty interesting to hear,” she said.
Along related lines, Fawcett said the department has done a fair share of individual counseling for families dealing with job loss; however, there hasn’t been a request for a group to form for affected children to talk about the impact of job loss. “We would be open to doing that, but financial struggle is one of the most difficult things for kids to talk about, especially in a relatively wealthy town. There’s a sort of silent poverty.”
There is no cost for group counseling or referral services provided by Fawcett and her colleagues at Wilton Social Services, as they are available to Wilton residents as resources they can access free of charge. The same stands for individual or family counseling. “It is short term. But we also have access to a pro-bono network of mental health professionals who have agreed to see clients for drastically reduced fees or even free. We’ve also written grants to help families who are underinsured or uninsured to access mental health services.”
In-school services as well
Families with children in the school district may also find resources through the counselors at each of the schools. “The schools run their own lunch bunch-type talk groups. But if they find they have students who may be better served in the community setting instead of opening things up at school, and there are enough where they feel the kids could benefit from a community setting, then they let us know and we do what we can,” Fawcett said.
Marie Geyer is one of two counselors on staff at Cider Mill School. She agreed that when an in-school group works it's great, but scheduling during lunch periods actually makes it more difficult for the school counselors to effectively organize a group.
“Unfortunately for us, we have to work by grade levels and lunch times. So it’s more difficult to gather that right mix of four or five children at the same time with the same need. You can’t run a group with less than four or five children, otherwise it doesn’t have the maximum effect. So we love teaming with Colleen, because can do a mix of kids and ages, and it’s convenient, right behind the school [at Comstock]. And it helps some parents and children who feel like it may not be a situation they want known in school."
Fawcett's message: There is NO stigma!
The overall message about mental health that Fawcett said she wants to get out to the community is how important it is to de-stigmatize the need for help. “That’s the challenge,” Fawcett said. “I hope to live to see the day where there’s not a stigma associated with needing help or with needing mental health support. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to reach out and get the supportive help that you need.”
That’s especially important, she added, when it involves children. “It’s important for kids to know they are not alone, but also for parents to feel okay to seek out a place where their children are comfortable talking about difficult things that may be going on in their lives.”
Wilton Youth Services is located at Comstock Community Center, 180 School Road. To reach Fawcett or Creeth, call (203) 834-6241 or visit www.wiltonyouthservices.org.