School CEO talks of challenges, pleasures of work

By Catherine Robertson Souter
October 1st, 2016

They say the difference between stress and passion is in the commitment to the outcome; one is putting in hours and the other is a labor of love.

Dan Murray, Psy.D., whose work as chief executive officer of the Wellspring Foundation and the Arch Bridge School falls into the passion category. As he explained in a conversation with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter, the challenges that face anyone choosing to work in a residential/treatment school must be balanced with the desire to make a difference in the lives of young people.

Q:  While it is the school we are mostly talking about today, Wellspring has more far-reaching services. Can you explain the program?

A:  First, Arch Bridge is an approved private school with 51 beds for adolescent and pre-adolescent girls with mental illness and special education issues. Wellspring Foundation also runs an adult women’s program on another campus with 10 beds and we have two outpatient clinics. We also do consultation for schools and professional organizations.

An additional day school program balances the residential school by giving the kids a chance to step down or into outpatient services and begin branching back into their districts. We are able to provide a natural transition or a bridge to get them back into the world.

Q:  The school follows a somewhat different model, correct?

A:  We are licensed in the state of Connecticut as both a private school and for residential treatment services, which is the model: do the best you can in replicating a high-end private school to give kids those opportunities while still meeting their mental health needs.

The reality is that when kids have a big mental health problem – suicide, psychosis, mood disorders, major personality disorders or trauma – they get side-tracked and their educational opportunities are severely limited. We help them settle down in a safe environment with great clinical services and give them the opportunities to stay on track and not lose momentum towards graduating from high school or finishing college.

Q:  What makes this program different?

A:  A lot of places don’t include the families at this level. The parents in our adolescent program are here weekly for family therapy and every other week for four hours for a parent support group and multi-family group.

Wellspring has always empowered residents and families to be active partners. More than half of the board of directors are past clients and family members. It is a model of families giving us information on how to do this well while continuing to upgrade clinical and educational services the best we can.

When I came here 25 years ago, I was touched by just how comfortable this place was. The goal is to build it as if your own kids were here. We have a working farm animal program, a garden, a really active adventure and rec program. It is just a wonderful model for reaching out to young people.

The kids work in our gardens and learn how to get dirty, to relax, to play. It’s a full body program. Keep their bodies moving and then give them all the clinical and educational services you can think of.

We offer college prep work and we have teachers who are certified in subject areas, all supported with special ed teachers. We don’t lock our doors because we have lots of staff around. Another local residential school might have one staff member for 12 kids where we have three direct care staff members for eight students supported by two clinicians and a part time psychiatrist plus administrators.

We are giving them true educational opportunities even though they are moving through some incredible issues. We have young people who have been victimized. We have dealt regularly with 9/11 families. We just graduated a young woman who had been in the high school program over in Sandy Hook and had really fallen apart after that. You are dealing with kids who have multiple levels of trauma, illness, family problems.

Q:  How is the program funded? It must be very expensive.

A:  Very rarely will insurance pay for this level of care. We get kids from the school districts and most are the ones with major psychiatric disorders that can’t be handled in district. But, as you know, a suicide attempt in a school district can have a flu-like effect and so you are really trying to get those kids who are that disabled settled down and back into the world.

Q:  What is it about this track that satisfies your career goals?

A:  I think that as you grow you start to look at how can I help. I had training in industrial and organizational psychology and I saw I could be helpful in designing systems and services and in trying to develop a team approach.

In the past five years, we have made some massive changes to our facilities, finishing a capital campaign to build an educational center with a gym and an elementary school. We were having financial problems and now we are in great shape. We found a model that everyone is comfortable with and so things are good.

Q:  What are the challenges of working in a residential school/treatment program like this one?

A:  There will always be pressure on how to fund something like this. The clear way into a hospital is through insurance but with longer-term treatment and education, the payer systems are more complicated and much more threatened. For years, Wellspring had public funding from the Department of Children and Families but they decided long-term treatment is not the way to go even though they said this is a great model.

It is hard to fight for the integrity of this. Not a lot of people believe that a kid with mental illness should be entitled to a safe private school environment to get well. But when you see these kids who have been in the hospital three or four times and they are still struggling and horrible things are happening in their life, we can’t help but see this program as being the best thing for them. Finding the funding is the biggest complication.

Keeping a place like Wellspring running, being able to pay staff enough, is another challenge. The reality is that hospitals make a lot more money than residential treatment facilities so the staff have to come here because they love what they are doing.

Q:  How are your success rates?

A:  Graduation day is wonderful here and our rates are incredible, in the high 90th percentiles.

To be honest, a place like is successful because of the amazing amount of good people who have decided to be invested in helping people. We have a wonderful staff clinically and educationally and administratively who want to help and are able to give their best all the time.

I look at it and say, “How does a little place like this raise a million dollars in two years to build a building?” It has to do with grateful families and donors who believe in what we are doing.

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