Edina Brownlow says these services helped her Credit: Courtesy of SEIU 1199

Union members and Hartford officials are decrying the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ decision to close one of the city’s residential treatment centers for young adults.

The closure of the Hilltop Residential program will reduce treatment beds specifically for young adults ages 18 to 25 by 32% in Hartford at a time when people are struggling with addiction and mental health issues during the pandemic, according to the New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199.

“It’s absolutely appalling to us as the leadership of the union that the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is taking this opportunity to privatize services in the midst of a public health crisis,” Rob Baril, president of the union, said. “The disruption of services is tremendously impactful to these young adults.”

The union was notified of the closure last week by the state Office of Policy and Management which said employees would have jobs at other DHMAS locations. Hilltop is expected to be closed by Nov. 19, state officials said. 

DHMAS spokesman Arthur Mongillo said the program is closing because the building lease was not renewed. The five remaining clients will be placed in similar settings in Hartford with their current multi-disciplinary team, Mongillo said. 

“In the meantime, DMHAS is planning to establish 10 new residential placements at a higher level of care so there is no reduction of mental health services for the 18-25 year old population,” Mongillo said.

It’s a place that helps young adults find their way after homelessness and mental health issues, said one 23-year-old client who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “It’s basically a place to get more skills to be independent,” the young man said.

In the five months he’s been there, the man has been able to access social services such as SNAP food benefits and cash assistance so that when he graduates to his own place, he can live as an adult, he said.

He was homeless after he was released from a mental health facility, he said. But the residential treatment program has not only housed him – it’s giving him the tools to succeed, he said. He is now two semesters away from graduating college while learning life skills such as cooking and cleaning, he said. “The main purpose at Hilltop is to prepare you for your own place, so in that, Hilltop is not forever,” the man said.

He feels the sudden closure will impact clients like himself who are in the middle of treatment and gaining independence and future clients who won’t experience the benefits of the facility, he said.

“I pictured myself graduating from college with the staff from Hilltop being there,” he said.

Hilltop didn’t exist in 2000 when Edina Brownlow needed a place to stay after being released from a state-run mental health facility. But the Young Adult Services did take her in at a different residential treatment center, she said.

“They got me out of the hospital and pretty much saved my life,” Brownlow said during a press conference Tuesday to rally against the closing. After transitioning to independent living through the program, Brownlow went on to become a DHMAS mental health assistant. “I see on a daily basis what the others in recovery like myself go through,” Brownlow said. “32% is a significant reduction.”

Baril pointed out that the closure comes at a time when opioid overdoses and the need for mental health services are skyrocketing. There have been 992 accidental fatal overdoses from January to August, compared to 1,369 in all of 2020, according to figures provided by the state Department of Public Health.

Hilltop had 10 residential treatment beds for young adults who are dealing with addiction or mental health concerns. But the facility has only had five clients since the summer indicating it was likely earmarked for closure for months, union officials said.

It is the only residential treatment facility for young adults in the north end of the city, said Hilltop case manager Avis Ward. The majority of clients are people of color, Ward said. “This can harm the well-being of clients,” Ward said.

DMHAS’s Young Adults Services programs provide services for 1,500 young adults annually including 260 individuals who are in residential settings like Hilltop, Mongillo said.

The new beds will be located in Hartford and are expected to be fully operational early next year, DHMAS officials said. The average length of stay in the Hilltop residential program was 18 to 24 months, according to the DHMAS website.

The new beds won’t arrive fast enough for Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin who said that the need for residential treatment services has increased markedly in the past 18 months.

“Now more than ever, it is so vital that we fully fund mental health and addiction services in our community,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, four times as many adults are reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression, and it is disproportionately affecting young adults.”

Bronin said he is against cutting mental health and addiction services because many people don’t have the support or money to pay for help. “When our residents need resources to treat addiction or mental illnesses, we need to be there to support them,” Bronin said.