Nearly three years after Steve and Deb Boczenowski’s son committed suicide, the Groton couple is working tirelessly to help other families throughout the region get the help they need before it’s too late.
The Boczenowskis founded Teenage Anxiety & Depression Solutions in their hometown last year to raise awareness about mental health issues in society, especially depression and anxiety.
Through TADS, the Boczenowskis helped bring Project Interface, a mental health and wellness referral service, to the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in January. Through their organization, they have also been instrumental in helping expand the program into Harvard and the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District. Harvard started July 1, and Ayer-Shirley is set to begin Nov. 1.
“It’s really hard to get mental health care,’’ said Steve Boczenowski, whose son Jeffrey died Dec. 1, 2009, at age 21. “I think this is a real innovative solution to this problem. We’re pushing this service out, and more and more towns are jumping on board.’’
Project Interface started in 2006 as a pilot project in Newton, and has been so successful it has moved into a dozen local school districts, including Concord-Carlisle, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional, Needham, and Waltham.
‘This is not a crisis line. What this service is trying to do is help a family before it gets to a crisis situation.’
“It’s a known problem within the commonwealth that access to mental health care is a challenge,’’ said Margaret Hannah, executive director of the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, which runs Project Interface. “There are several organizations working in concert to break down the barriers.”
Project Interface collects and categorizes a wide range of resources related to mental health and wellness for the benefit of the general public, but it also maintains a mental health and wellness referral help line available to communities that pay for the service. Callers to the line speak with a trained professional who helps find a therapeutic match to a provider who meets each caller’s requirements for insurance, location, professional expertise, and personal characteristics. Hannah said finding a good match can be time consuming and frustrating for the person seeking services.
“It’s hard because when you feel you need service, it’s an emotional time, you feel overwhelmed, and you don’t know where to begin because the system to navigate is pretty large,’’ she said. “When you’re struggling with mental health concerns, it’s a lot of tasks to take on. This service breaks down those barriers.’’
Local school officials say it’s a service that is desperately needed.
“The need has been there and we haven’t had an answer for the need,’’ said Jim O’Shea, principal of the Bromfield School, Harvard’s public high school. “It really got traction as something we need in the community.’’
Betsy Dolan, a guidance counselor in the Ayer-Shirley district, said families can call the school for referrals but many don’t, or won’t.
“I know there are many not able to share with us because of the stigma, or because they don’t know where to turn,’’ said Dolan, who lives in Groton and learned about the program from the Boczenowskis.
For participating communities, the referral line is available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is staffed by professionals from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology or master’s level graduate students.
“This is not a crisis line,’’ Dolan said. “What this service is trying to do is help a family before it gets to a crisis situation.’’ Dolan said Project Interface prepares a report for the participating districts letting them know how many people called and why. She said it will help the towns better pinpoint the needs.
“The kids helped the soonest do the best,’’ she said.
Steve Boczenowski wishes it was a service that was available to his family when Jeffrey was struggling the last few years of his life. He said he knew his son needed help but he didn’t know where to turn.
“People don’t talk about it,’’ Steve Boczenowski said. “People don’t swap stories about good therapists. It’s really hard to get mental health care.’’
About six months after Jeffrey died, about 175 people in tight-knit Groton attended a forum, during which the family shared anecdotes about the treatment barriers they encountered. In an effort to continue raising awareness, the Boczenowskis founded TADS. Through their research, they learned about Project Interface and worked to bring it into Groton and Dunstable earlier this year.
“There’s nothing like this,’’ Steve Boczenowski said. “Had Project Interface been in Groton 10 years ago, I think Jeffrey would still be alive.’’
Hannah said the service has expanded recently thanks to the efforts of people like the Boczenowskis and because users are satisfied. Hannah said about 400 people recently responded to a survey as part of an outside evaluation of the service. She said 96 percent of the respondents felt their provider match was a good fit overall.
She said 58 percent of the respondents said they had tried to find help on their own but had not been successful.
“It speaks to the need for both access to care and for prevention,’’ Hannah said.