I t’s clear from the moment you walk into the lobby—featuring colorful, soft couches and hand-painted murals—that creating a positive, safe feeling of community is a priority at the Clifford Beers Clinic, an outpatient mental health facility for children located in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood. The facility is named after Clifford Beers, a Yale grad and pioneer in the mental health industry who founded the Connecticut Committee for Mental Hygiene in 1908, followed by its “National” counterpart in 1909, followed by the Clinic in 1913.
One hundred years later, the non-profit serves 18 towns around the area and sees approximately 1,600 children a year for a range of issues, says Alice Forrester, who came to the center 16 years ago as a PhD student and has been Executive Director for five years now. Forrester is sitting in a cheerful office decorated with pictures and a few toys; the building is comprised of many such sunny offices housing the administrative staff, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and researchers who make up the dynamic Clifford Beers team. The décor tends to fit the clientele: one office features a small collection of toy dinosaurs; a meeting room’s wall is covered in brightly colored paper mache masks.
The center’s impressive array of services is delivered via the onsite clinic, school-based clinics in New Haven, programs for military families and a 24-hour hotline, to name just a few. Children who come through the door may have experienced any kind of trauma, abuse, neglect or other mental health-related problems.
“We understand that these early childhood adversities really affect their mental and physical health,” Forrester says. “Chronic and persistent stress takes a toll on a child.”
The concept of adverse childhood experiences—ACEs for short—is getting a lot of attention these days. The ACE Study, an ongoing project between the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, has revealed a strong connection between early childhood trauma and various health and social problems later in life.
But Forrester and others at the Clinic think it could use more attention still, and that’s why they’re using the 100th anniversary to look into the future, proposing new projects and looking for new partners to make them a reality. According to the Clinic’s website, it’s “one of the oldest community-based non-profit outpatient mental health clinics in America,” so it’s unexpected when Forrester begins to speak excitedly about the unorthodox ideas being floated for creating a new, multi-faceted “wellness center.” There, families might see medical doctors as well as mental health professionals, complete with a café or yoga studio. The approach speaks to the Clinic’s emphasis on treating not only the child but also the entire family.
In that same vein, they’d like to expand intervention services to target troubled families and very young children who may have experienced a traumatic event, thereby nipping associated mental health issues in the bud. Forrester says they hope to increase services aimed at parents as well.
Mostly, the Clinic aims to bring its message and services to the wider community in years to come. “In a lot of ways we have a stigmatized society of silence,” Forrester says. Her broad prescription includes “reducing cost and improving access to care, making it easy and relaxed to talk about things that are difficult.”
Forrester says that, in its next 100 years, the Clifford Beers Clinic will simply ask the question, “What more can we do?” Backed by a solid staff, board and history, her ideas seem more than just wishful thinking.
Clifford Beers Clinic
93 Edwards Street, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.