Pandemic creates challenges for Burrillville’s mental health, substance prevention team

The Burrillville Prevention Action Coalition held their first virtual meeting this week.

BURRILLVILLE – From meetings for those struggling with addiction, to events and advocacy aimed at educating youth, activities aimed at substance abuse prevention came to a screeching halt in March as the region reacted to the threat from Covid-19.

But town officials aim to continue efforts aimed at keeping drug abuse and and addiction at bay, and at a virtual meeting this week, members of the Burrillville Prevention Advocacy Coalition discussed ways to help those who need it.

“We’ve had an uptick in calls relative to mental health, many with the underlying issue of substance abuse,” said Col. Stephen Lynch. 

Brandy Bates, coordinator of the Burrillville Addiction Assistance Program, noted that the inaccessibility of certain medications is among the many issues local residents have been facing.

“A lot of people are struggling,” Bates said. “Not being able to go to meetings has been a huge hit.”

Bates, who recently replaced Michelle Harter in leading the program, noted that the pandemic had been particularly hard for the town’s older residents with limited knowledge of, and access to, technology.

“It’s hurting our older population,” Bates said.

Jill Derrico, a senior public health promotion specialist for the Rhode Island Department of Health who lives in Harrisville, noted that her plan to offer mental health training to local EMS and fire departments was stopped short by the pandemic.

Derrico had secured a grant for materials to offer the 8-hour RIDOH program, now a requirement in the state, to all of the Burrillville fire districts, as well as North Smithfield Glocester and Chepachet. She received materials on March 10, and had scheduled the mental health first aide classes for April and May, with 25 students per class.

“Now we can’t have it,” Derrico said.

The advocate pointed out that when stay-at-home orders were first issued in March, the vast majority of calls to local police were related to mental health.

“There aren’t a lot of services around here,” Derrico told NRI NOW this week. “We do have a shortage of psychiatrists and places people can go for out-patient services. If we had the chance to do this before this all happened, it would have helped.”

Derrico said she still plans to offer the class for free to all Burrillville police, fire and EMS once it’s deemed safe, and said she would also be happy to work with social service organizations and church groups that want the training.

“I’m trying to do what I can for this part of the state,” she said.

Burrillville police have found help in addressing residents’ mental health issues through the BH Link, a 24-hour triage and call center for those in crisis operated by Community Care Alliance.

“We are still open,” said Kristen Fletcher, a community liaison for CCA. “We are still taking intakes.”

Those in need of confidential mental health support are instructed to call (401) 414-LINK to get connected to care. CCA also operates a second phone line for those under the age of 18 at (855) KID-LINK.

Bates noted that many people have been scared to seek treatment amid the pandemic.

“They’re calling and they just want to talk,” she said.

Harrisville Fire Capt. Norman Mainville noted that calls for service at the department are down 30 percent.

“There is a concern because people are not getting the help that they need,” Mainville said.

BPAC coordinator Monica Blanchette noted that several events aimed at reaching town youth, including the annual mock car crash and ‘town hall’ for families, have been cancelled.

“We had a lot of things that we were working on that have really gotten side-lined,” Blanchette said.  

School Department officials said that the district has had good attendance for virtual learning and that when issues arise, there are outreach efforts in place to keep kids engaged.

“We’re seeing different kids thrive,” said Callahan Elementary School Principal David Brissette. “It’s just been an amazing thing to watch evolve.”

Lynch said that when distance learning first began in March, the department did see a spike in mental health calls among youth, but the trend has subsided.

“Our domestic violence calls have remained steady, and I don’t see a tie-in to distance learning,” Lynch said.

Blanchette noted that, overall, both the schools and community at large have stayed strong throughout the pandemic.

“The teachers are fantastic,” Blanchette said. “I couldn’t be more proud to be part of this community. “

Lt. William Lacey agreed that the crisis has been well-managed in Burrillville.

“It make me extremely confident,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to get through anything.”

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