Bedford Social Workers Say “Help is Available if You Need It”

The three social workers on the staff of the town Department of Health and Human Services have a message for residents: if you think you need help, don’t hesitate to call or write.

“Normalize the fact that everyone needs help sometimes,” said Danika Castle, whose focus is on the needs of older residents. She discouraged “this idea that people should be able to do this on their own. People don’t know what they don’t know; it’s ok to ask.”

Chris Bang, who primarily works with residents between ages 18 and 60, added, “Definitely reach out sooner if you’re in need. It’s a lot more manageable for us before a crisis is full-blown.”

Mackenzie Comeau, the department’s youth social worker, said, “People need to be patient and kind to themselves and others. Just to be understanding is really the first step.”

The team is backed by a network of mental health and social service agencies and specialists that includes the Eliot Community Human Services, school counselors, and other municipal departments like police and fire that make referrals.

Over the last several months “we have experienced a lot of people with anxiety. That is the big mental health issue right now,” Bang reported. The sources of the anxiety are broad, he continued, with much of it resulting from situations created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“People are still struggling to make rent payments and pay utility bills,” he said. “People are getting blindsided by unexpected expenses and rising costs.” But the reason for anxious feelings is not always concrete.

Anxiety has physical manifestations like rapid heartbeat, panic attacks, and excessive worry, Bang said. There are also psychological effects, “ruminating thoughts that you can’t shake, worry about the future.”

“People can’t always identify anxiety,” Castle said. Financial issues have intensified since the pandemic. “There’s a direct correlation.”

Comeau noted “the significant amount of change we had in the past few years. People are having difficulty trying to manage their own stress and anxiety and then figuring out how to manage their kids’.”

The social workers may have particular age designations, but find they often overlap and collaborate.

Bang pointed out that in the region, “The mental health system has a massive strain on it. There just aren’t enough providers.” Eliot has assigned a full-time therapist to the Bedford department who sees more than 20 clients a week and still has a waiting list. Some are assigned directly to the service’s home office in Concord.

He also cited the Health and Human Department’s and the schools’ affiliation with the William James College INTERFACE Referral Service, an outpatient mental health resource and referral hotline. A two-week waiting list for referrals has grown into a couple of months, he said.

The Bedford team has ongoing caseloads, and “most of the time we are the first point of contact,” Bang explained. “We assess the situation and then connect with resources and appropriate interventions. We can give short-term strategies for navigation.”

“We’re trying to help people pull together all that’s happening to them and find the right resources and services to follow up,” said Castle, “If somebody needs to meet, it’s about how quickly we can make that happen.”

“We help to point people in the right direction for services,” Comeau said. “In conversations, things come up where they might present with the need for a diagnosis. There could be a lot of different avenues after those first few meetings. It depends on the family and what they need.”

Added Castle, “We do a lot of hands-on assistance. If it’s beyond the scope of what we do they need to move forward either with resources or therapy. But we all do what we can.” That includes checking in with residents on the waiting lists for therapy, Bang said.

Growing “food insecurity” is one byproduct of the pandemic, Bang said, and for some residents “there’s still a stigma. People don’t realize the food bank is a resource available to them. So many people don’t realize they qualify for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) It’s here to help. We have all levels of contact,  starting with just a phone call or check-in every week.”

He also confirmed that there is a homeless population in the town, living in vehicles and even tents.

Comeau said she uses all of the schools’ communication tools “to let families know about the services our office has. It has been working.” Her outreach also includes the library and pediatricians’ offices.

Castle noted that the Council on Aging recently did a “rebranding,” featuring new brochures in several languages presenting “information about who we are and what we do.” Staff reaches out to housing complexes, motels, and the VA Hospital, she said.

“One of the things we have seen in the senior population is an increase in dealing with dementia,” Castle noted  She said the situation was exacerbated by the isolation forced by the pandemic.

“Sometimes people are hesitant to reach out about it,” she said, including adult children and “significant others.” “There has been a lot more outreach from family members or friends,  people who need more support or can’t manage it in the home.”

Comeau commented that “for a lot of kids and their families, social media safety keeps coming up. Parents need to know how to talk to their kids about it.” She noted that the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey have been received and will be analyzed over the summer “to develop outreach and interventions.”

The social workers can be contacted by telephone or email: Bang 781-918-4328, [email protected];  Castle 781-275-6825, ext. 4302, [email protected]; Comeau, 781-981-4331, [email protected].

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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