Significant funding for mental health initiatives will be flowing to the Department of Public Health following unanimous approval of two warrant articles at the Oct. 30 Special Town Meeting. 

Article 2 transfers funds from Boston Children’s Hospital’s PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement with Needham earmarked for youth health initiatives to the town’s Youth & Family Services Division. Children’s broke ground this year on a new day-surgery center on First Avenue. Payments of $200,000 began with their building permit and will continue annually. 

Sara Shine, director of Youth & Family Services, and her team spent the past year meeting with Needham residents, town staff and individuals in the public schools, Park & Recreation, and library staff. All agreed that mental health services, especially counseling, are the greatest youth health need.

Youth & Family Services provides free counseling and referrals for mental health issues including depression, suicide attempts, eating disorders and substance use, as well as related services such as for food insecurity. The need for counseling is so great they have shifted their model from providing ongoing counseling to brief support and referral.

The dramatic uptick in mental health disorders during the pandemic accelerated a preexisting upward trend in mental health concerns. According to Shine, no age group was spared. Even young children starting school for the first time this fall were exposed to stresses through their older siblings and parents. Social isolation and increased screen time only amplified unhelpful messages to older children. Shine said there were attempted suicides, although no Needham youth has died by suicide during this period.

Shine’s group will use the funds to hire two full-time, master’s-level clinicians. One will be a community-based mental health worker who divides their time among sites where youth congregate. Library staff have received training in identifying mental health concerns, from vandalism to substance use to behavioral issues, and the library seems an ideal spot to perform outreach. Privacy will be respected, and no clinical counseling will be provided to underage youth without parental consent. 

The second position will focus on new mental health training. Training for school and town staff is planned, with community-based training for families on the table. 

Exactly how the program’s success will be measured remains to be seen. The hires are for a two-year period, and the group will track statistics such as those already shared with the Metro West Health Foundation. Because the funds are allocated through a warrant article, they must be approved every year.

Money from the National Opioid Settlements

The second source of incoming money, through Article 4, is from the National Opioid Settlements distributed through the state. The settlements produced a substantial payout — upwards of $50 billion over a 15-year period — from pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and retailers, intended to combat opioid-related deaths and facilitate substance use prevention, treatment and recovery. 

Massachusetts has allocated its settlement funds in a 60:40 split between a statewide opioid recovery/remediation fund and individual payments to towns and cities that opted to participate. 

The opioid settlement warrant article was overseen by Tiffany Benoit, assistant director of Public Health, whose group has taken a long view. This year, they are requesting $145,000 to be spent mainly on community outreach and strategic planning ($90,000), a part-time peer recovery coach ($52,000), and a set of SAMBOXes (good Samaritan boxes containing CPR equipment and Narcan nasal spray; 11 boxes for $3,000). 

Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, the opioid reversal drug that can temporarily restore breathing to an unconscious person until first responders arrive. The boxes will be placed in town buildings near existing AEDs (automated external defibrillators), with an eventual plan to distribute them more widely and locate them where overdoses are likely to occur. Benoit said there have been nine overdoses in Needham over the past year, three of which were opioid related, and one resulted in death. 

For community outreach and strategic planning, Benoit’s team plans to hire two consultants who were chosen through a standard request-for-quotes process and are poised to start working immediately. 

Regina Villa Associates, a Boston-based consulting firm, will lead a community outreach process, meeting with Needham residents in recovery, families of substance-addicted persons and any town members who wish to participate. This will produce a roadmap that can guide use of the settlement funds for the duration of their availability.

Educational Development Center, a nonprofit that works with the town on other projects, will use the roadmap to help develop a five-year strategic plan with ideas for implementation and metrics for evaluation, to be presented to Town Meeting in spring 2024. 

Benoit is optimistic about these initiatives and said she is happy to be working in a town that appreciates the impact of the opioid epidemic and the value of making this investment.

Within the next year, Needham residents may have the opportunity to participate in community engagement activities related to these initiatives.  

Needham resident Jennifer Tirnauer is a physician.

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