Sandy Hook Commission Studying Mental Health Following Newtown Massacre


The Hartford Courant

11:14 AM EDT, March 22, 2013


After focusing on guns for the past two months, the governor’s Sandy Hook Advisory Commission held its first public hearing Friday on mental health issues related to the Newtown massacre.

Kim Pernerewski, the president of the Waterbury chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, said that teachers need to be aware of the issues facing their students.

“Are we missing the boat on teaching our teachers?” she asked. “They have a hard job out there.”

“I don’t want Newtown to happen again,” she said. “My God, what was in that kid’s mind? What happened? That poor father. What must he be going through now? Nobody wants to be that parent. … This is not just a gun issue. This goes deeper – much, much, much deeper. And trust me, I don’t like guns.”

“I can’t tell you the number of teachers who come up to me and want to talk to me privately, saying, ‘I have a family member. I have a friend. I have a student. I have a daughter,’ ” Pernerewski said. “They’re dealing with an awful lot of guilt. They feel like they’ve done something wrong. … That’s the hardest thing to get across. It’s not your fault.”

She said there are numerous resources to obtain information about mental health, including The Children and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation.

“There are groups out there that can help you,” she said, adding that her son is involved in the mental health system.

“As a country and a state, we tend to talk about empathy,” she said. “We don’t empathize sometimes, and we forget about it later on. … We forget that there are people out there who hurt every single day. … That’s what it’s all about. It’s about empathizing with people.”

 Dr. Ezra H. Griffith, a psychiatry professor at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, asked about the insurance coverage problems with pediatric psychiatrists and other health professionals.

If the charge is $160 per visit, the psychiatrist often gets $60 because of the reduced reimbursement rates , Pernerewski said.

The next speakers Friday were Louise C. Pyers, executive director of the nonprofit research group known as the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, and Sgt. Christopher McKee from the Windsor Police Department’s crisis intervention team.

Statewide, there are 42 police departments that have crisis intervention teams, and another 30 departments are in the process of forming such teams in collaboration with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and NAMI of Connecticut. Those teams divert people with mental illness “to the services they need, rather than making an arrest,” Pyers said.

But Dr. Harold Schwartz, the vice president of behavioral health at Hartford Hospital and the psychiatrist-in-chief at the Institute of Living, said he was surprised that only 42 police departments had the program, adding that he will call West Hartford’s mayor to learn why his hometown police department is not on the list.

“Some department don’t understand what CIT is all about,” said Pyers, referring to crisis intervention teams. “Some think it is related to hostage negotiations. … They think, ‘We already have hostage negotiators, so we’re all set with that.’ ”

Pyers noted that the police officers themselves often need help because of the horrorific scenes they have witnessed. For both police officers and the victims’ families, the memories of Newtown will not go away soon.

“Every December 14, every birthday, Mother’s Day, they will be thinking about their children,” said Pyers, who has a family member with mental illness. ”This is not done in a year. … We know those families will need help, probably for the rest of their lives. And the police officers will, too.”

McKee said that police need to analyze particular situations “so we are not simply jumping to arrest.” Sometimes the person could be better served by a mobile crisis center, he said.

“You have some folks who are at the end of their rope and don’t know what to do” who can obtain help, McKee said.

“We’re all human beings, first and foremost,” said Officer Susan Brown, an 18-year veteran who serves on the crisis intervention team at the Windsor police department. “I don’t care who you are or how strong you think you are, nobody came out of that unaffected. … It will bother them for the rest of their lives. It bothers me. It happened on my birthday. I will remember that on my birthday every year. … We’re supposed to be tough. We’re supposed to be strong. But we’re human beings.”

Bowman added, “If you go to a psychiatrist, you might say it differently than you would say it to an officer. … Sometimes we can’t talk about those things at home.”

If an officer is calling in sick on a frequent basis, Bowman said, “They might be sick, or they might be hurting emotionally. … It also helps us maintain a healthy lifestyle. … Sometimes we do silly things that aren’t good for us – smoke. Years ago, every cop smoked. Now, we’re teaching cops to take care of themselves – mentally and physically.”