EAST LYME – The early days of the pandemic. Teens rely on social media for connection, sometimes helpful, often times harmful.

“It’s kind of a blur,” says Mara Wolff. “I remember being in my closet, kind of had all my sweatshirts over me, and I was a mess, I was crying.”

The 17-year-old remembered a number she’d heard at school: 2-1-1.

Wolff, struggling with anorexia, called the helpline, feeling desperate, and contemplating suicide.

“I just remember a lady answering the phone, she was asking me questions,” she says. “She began to calm me down and I remember feeling a sense of, ‘I’m so glad I called this number right now.'”

United Way of Connecticut is the 2-1-1 contact center for the state of Connecticut and we have a special crisis team,” says President and CEO Lisa Tepper Bates as she walks through the call center in Rocky Hill which also responds to 9-8-8, the suicide prevention line.

Tepper Bates says social media and online bullying make life very different for today’s teens.

“The science reflects kids are entering puberty earlier than they used to and they are, as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago, flooded with information and sometimes misinformation about their health, their well-being, about facts regarding the world and that’s really stressful on those brains that are developing,” she says.

The United Way reports that in 2022, two years into the pandemic, nearly 12,000 of all Connecticut calls received to the crisis lines were from youth under the age of 18.

“In over 90% of those calls, we’re able to dispatch the Department of Children and Families Youth Mobile Mental Health Crisis Team to be of help,” says Tepper Bates.

“If it’s a crisis to you, it’s a crisis to us,” says Tiffany Hubrins, Director of Outpatient and Community Based Services at Wheeler Clinic, overseeing the mobile crisis program.

Once a call is made, a therapist is dispatched and can get to a home within 45 minutes.

They diffuse and assess the situation while discussing safety planning and next steps like treatment options.

“I’ve seen so many people struggling, their kids have been going through things, they don’t know what to do, then, they call us and there’s a breath of fresh air, ‘I feel seen,'” she says.

No one is forced into treatment. Hospitalizations are rare.

“We are a voluntary program, you do have the choice to stop and start whenever you’d like,” says Hubrins.

“There’s this myth: if you talk about suicide, it will increase. And, it’s actually the opposite. It’s important for parents to tune into their kid and ask questions,” says Vannessa Dorantes, Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families which is responsible for children’s behavioral health here in the state.

And it’s important to begin the dialogue about mental health early.

“The Gizmo curriculum is a bright spot in this challenging area,” says Tepper Bates.

The Department of Children and Families, the United Way, and the Department of Mental Health have partnered on this program, geared at 8-year-olds, giving kids the tools to take care of their mental health.

“Gizmo helps kids to understand, ‘If I’m mad or sad, what can I do to help myself feel better?’ and it gives them a language to talk to trusted adults when they need someone’s help,” says Tepper Bates.

Gizmo is a real dog who delights the kids so they become really engaged in the book and lessons.

Handler Jen Adams has brought him into more than twenty local schools.

“We’d like to see every 3rd grader in Connecticut have access to this program,” says Tepper Bates who believes the curriculum lays the groundwork for these kids to have a good handle on their mental health through the teen years and adulthood.

“I finally feel strong enough to talk about something my friends don’t know about,” says Wolff, in a video of a speech she recently gave for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

She is doing much better, as shown in her ability to speak publicly about her call to 2-1-1.

Wolff says she had the chance to pause…and remember the bigger picture…of life.

“I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t called. It was a bad night and sometimes impulses can get the best of you,” she says. “I’m so thankful, they saved my life, truly.”

While phone calls can be taken anytime, right now, the mobile crisis team can make house visits from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

But, as of the start of the new year, the state plans to make this a 24-hour service.

Click here to find out more about Gizmo’s Pawesome Guide to Mental Health.

If you or someone you know are in need of help, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or click here.