Officials on Tuesday voted unanimously to appoint the health director of a prominent psychiatric hospital in New Canaan to a new role serving the town.
The Board of Selectmen voted 3-0 to appoint Dr. John Santopietro, president of Silver Hill Hospital, as New Canaan’s first-ever director of behavioral health.
Though Santopietro will report directly to the first selectman in the role, “he is definitely going to help a lot of departments, especially the Police Department,” Police Chief Leon Krolikowski told the selectmen at their regular meeting, by way of introducing Santopietro.
“We need a lot, especially with all the behavioral health issues in the community and we often have folks where we go to their house multiple times and there is not a whole lot we can do sometimes. So this is going to be another resources we can go to. Dr. Santopietro will give us specific advice about how to we can handle things differently and hopefully get the folks in our town a lot more help than they are getting right now.”
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan and Selectmen Kit Devereaux and Nick Williams unanimously approved the appointment.
In the role, Santopietro will help evaluate and improve New Canaan’s mental health services and policies, guide the police department and work with other municipal agencies, according to a press release issued after the selectmen meeting.
There, Santopietro said it was “an honor” to be asked to serve in the role, conceived by Krolikowski.
He described himself as an aspiring physician who was “interested in how the brain works and how the mind works.”
“And so I got interested in psychiatry and finished up my training in about 2000 and actually was sort of ready to save the world one person at a time and then I saw just how broken the system was, really right from the beginning,” Santopietro said at the meeting, held in Town Hall.
“And so my career has mostly been devoted to trying to make it better and in leadership. I came here to Silver Hill and started in September and have actually in my journey had a lot of leadership roles, but I wanted to work at a place that had what I call ‘deep clinical soul.’ ”
He said that Silver Hill was a place toward which he would direct one of his own family members and that from the beginning he “knew that this was a real gem in the community and see it as a resource to the community.”
“So what an incredible opportunity to be able to serve in the capacity of leveraging that resource for the benefit of this community and the town,” he said. “I think everybody has the sense … that there is a lot going on in the country these days around mental health and around keeping our communities mentally strong and resilient and that is a team sport and how lucky we are in New Canaan to have the resource of what is certainly a nationally known resource in terms of Silver Hill. So I am happy to do it and I have gotten to know Leon a little bit and very much agree with what he is about in terms of the health of communities and very much look forward to serving.”
Santopietro graduated from Yale University, Northwestern University Medical School, and completed his internship, residency, and fellowship at Harvard Medical School, according to a bio in the press release. He is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and serves on multiple national boards including the American Association of Community Psychiatrists, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the American Hospital Association’s Governing Council of the Section for Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Services. Santopietro also was president of the Connecticut Psychiatric Society in 2012, and earned an award there for his leadership during the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Devereaux called Santopietro’s background “incredible” and asked whether and how behavioral health differs from mental health. He answered that they’re largely interchangeable, there’s less stigma associated with the newer term ‘behavioral health,’ which also speaks to “the common pathway” in what professionals do in assessing and addressing problems that may evince themselves through changes in behavior, such as depression.
“You can think about it as a new term for ‘mental health,’ a broader term,” the doctor said.
Williams asked Santopietro whether he had thoughts on the timely question of police access to video cameras inside New Canaan High School—for example, to address a student that was dealing opioids.
Santopietro said a “multi-pronged approach” to the issue of substance abuse is best—including education, support services when people are identified so that they get into treatment early, reducing stigma and understanding that substance abuse use disorder is a brain disorder—and that surveillance itself “is not my bailiwick” and he’d leave that specific question to experts such as Krolikowski and the police.
Moynihan said that he spoke on Monday to about 250 fifth-graders at Saxe Middle School, and during a question-and-answer session, one of the kids asked what he was going to do about the drug problem at New Canaan High School.
“So it’s on the mind of fifth-graders,” Moynihan said, adding that “it’s a very good time” for Santopietro to start in the essentially pro bono role.
“We really appreciate your willingness to participate and help the town,” Moynihan said.