DARIEN — Together, the Darien Center for HOPE’s two lead clinicians, Amanda Geffner and James McGinn, bring more than two decades of experience working in social services.

Before coming on in March 2015, McGinn, the Center’s mental and behavioral health clinician, specialized in school counseling doing crisis intervention, temporary therapeutic support and connecting families to services. Geffner, who began at the Center in April 2014 and is now director of clinical services for Darien and New Canaan, had worked in domestic violence shelters, did analytic training at a relational institute, worked on a hospital psychiatric unit and was in private practice.

Now the pair are spearheading efforts to support the needs of the community through their work at the center, and through their involvement with local organizations such as the Thriving Youth Task Force, the Human Services Planning Council, the Darien Library and Norwalk Community College.

They sat down with the Darien News to discuss their work with Family Centers, and their approaches to counseling and overcoming the stigma associated with seeking help.

Given the anxiety that many people feel at the prospect of receiving counseling, what kind of environment do you seek to create at the Center for HOPE?

J: As the facilitators, we screen all of our group members first. We’ll meet with them to get a better understanding of what brings them, what past experiences they may have had, clinically or treatment-wise, That way we can kind of dispel any myths or falsehoods. I try to get them to understand that it’s largely what they bring into it.

A: I feel additionally that we really emphasize that what a patient is feeling is normal. Life is hard and things happen and it’s not a stigma, there’s nothing wrong with them and, in fact, it’s a strength if they’re reaching out for help. Sometimes it’s just by your presence. How you breathe and stay calm and show them it’s OK to be human, it’s OK to have all the feelings.

There’s often a stigma attached to admitting you have a problem and seeking help. Has the intensity of that stigma increased or decreased over the course of your career?

J: I would say overall there has been a decrease in the stigma associated with it. But I think there’s still a large piece of it there. It’s so ingrained in people that it’s wrong or shameful to reach out for help, or to talk about things. But as humans we have limitations.. It’s actually wise to say, I may need a little help with this. I think more people are kind of acknowledging that this is helpful and it’s not something negative.

A: I think over time culturally it has changed. But I do feel like part of our ongoing challenge is to continue making it clear to people that it’s OK to be open about our humanness. Everybody dies at some point. We don’t wish it and it feels tragic, certainly. It’s always sad and difficult. I think we’re still in a continuum of learning to be more open as a society.

Regarding sensitive subjects like suicide there’s an impulse to educate teens that’s coupled with a fear of over-publicizing and inadvertently encouraging the act. How do you handle the subject when working with at-risk groups?

J: It’s a tough question to answer because I think with the advent of social media and technology, we’re hearing about it a lot more. Especially when it comes to youths, they hear about it so much, and they have such a difficulty with extended thinking and forethought and they’re so impulsive, that it’s right there. Something catastrophic happens in their world and that’s like kind of an immediate solution.

A: It is very dicey territory. I don’t think either of us have the facts as to whether it is more prevalent or we’re just hearing about it more. The good news is that we are reaching out more and we’re doing more prevention work and the needs of victims are being addressed. At the one end you want to be protective and careful, but you don’t want to fall into the trap of ‘Let’s not talk about this because people might get ideas. The solution isn’t just to cut off the fact that this is happening. I come from the school that silence is not the answer. It’s all about balance.

What is the availability, in Darien and on a larger scale, of services like those offered at the Center for HOPE. Are there enough places for people to seek help?

J: I guess the short answer to that is there are never enough. I think if anything, especially for people who don’t have any sort of experience with clinical treatment, or therapy of any sort, they may not even really be sure what they’re looking for. So they may be limited in what terms they’re using to search things out. With a little bit of time and maybe a little bit of expansion of their knowledge, they begin using the right terminology and find the right individuals.

A: I was sort of mulling that as you spoke and thinking about that idea that groups are so important. Society is not how it once was. We don’t have as much of that hanging out in the neighborhood, there are a lot of sources of togetherness and support that aren’t as easy and accessible everywhere. So I think that that has made it more important. And I do think there is more awareness of coming together by choice. Maybe via the internet, maybe by recognizing there are social service resources. It’s really helpful to come together and have a place where you’re not isolated. I think we’re in a time of change. There’s more understanding.

justin.papp@scni.com; dariennewsonline.com