Child care extraordinare: Meet the resident helping kids with mental health

Jan 17, 2021

It takes a village to raise a child — but when mental health issues are in the mix, sometimes it takes a bit more.

Enter Erin McAlonan, Dartmouth Youth Commission member and Program Director for the Community Service Agency at the nonprofit Child and Family Services of New Bedford.

The agency has been serving families and children in need in Greater New Bedford since 1843. 

Originally a home for orphans whose fathers had been lost at sea, it now offers a wide range of counseling and community support services including youth support, adoption services, therapy, specialty clinics, psychiatric consultation, and psychological testing. 

McAlonan directs one of the non-profit’s nine programs focused on coordinating care for patients in need of multiple mental health services. She has worked in the same program for 15 years, and has directed it for the past six.

“I believe in the philosophy,” the Dartmouth resident said simply. 

The program uses a ‘wraparound model’ of care, in which patients and families are put at the center of planning.

“[It’s about making] sure that the youth and family have a voice in what they want to do and how they see their goals,”  McAlonan explained. “No one should ever feel as if a decision in their life is made for them.”

“We find that if you force somebody into trying to complete something, the buy-in factor is a little less,” she added. “[If they have] more control, you tend to see more success.”

When she first joined the Dartmouth Youth Commission, McAlonan said, she noted that people in town tend to be particularly reluctant to reach out for help.

“Nobody really wants to necessarily open up and talk about where they’re struggling,” she said. “That’s one of the hardest things...But in Dartmouth more so, there’s historically just been this vibe of, you keep your information [to yourself].”

At the same time, she noted, “I have several youth from Dartmouth enrolled in my program.”

And with the pandemic bringing many mental health and behavioral issues to the forefront, services are sorely needed now more than ever, with McAlonan noting concerns about isolation, abuse, and suicide. 

But there is also much more help out there than in years past. 

“Supports and services are so much richer now than they were two decades ago,” McAlonan said. “I feel like I came on to the Youth Commission at the perfect time.”

McAlonan studied psychology as an undergraduate before completing a masters degree in expressive arts therapy.

“Talk therapy wasn’t really my thing,” she said with a laugh. “We’re all still trying to figure out what we want to do when we grow up!”

After moving back to her native New Bedford, she started counseling children at home, eventually stumbling upon Child and Family Services.

“The rest is kind of history,” she said with a smile. “I just liked how the program was different. I was never doing the same thing every day.”

“We used to joke [that] we’re everything all at once,” she added. 

But sometimes — especially after more than 20 years on the job — being everything at once can be a lot.

“It’s draining work,” McAlonan admitted. “Managing the program, day-to-day operations. Trying to meet the needs of the families but also meet the needs of the staff working diligently with those families.”

“How do you give so much of yourself when you’re still trying to yourself support your own life?” she asked, noting that friends have also asked her why she does what she does. 

“It sounds so corny, I know it, but — the thank you,” she said. “Even if you just get one...The thank you, and knowing that you just supported a family.”