A large-scale effort to support mental health
By Steven Berbeco, Director of United Way’s Mental Health Initiative
The pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our state’s mental health system of care, with many more of us trying to connect to services for depression, anxiety and other issues. World Mental Health Day (which was Oct. 10) gave us an opportunity to reconnect with each other in our shared efforts to protect and improve mental health resources for ourselves and our neighbors.
As I write this, about one in five positions are vacant across Vermont’s state-designated mental health and specialized service agencies, where nearly 1,000 Vermonters are waiting for mental health and substance use services. Therapists in private practice, too, say they are booked with people who decided to prioritize their mental health during the pandemic, contributing to long wait times for many of us to access care.
Youth mental health has emerged as a national priority, and school leaders in Vermont are reporting growing complexity and severity of student behavior, including violent outbursts, threats of harm to themselves and others, and sexualized behaviors. At the same time, there are limited mental health resources available to our public schools.
Vermont’s suicide rate exceeds the national average by 30 percent, and the most recent data from the Vermont Department of Health show the numbers continue to head in the wrong direction. Suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death in Vermont, touching every socioeconomic status, race, identity and community.
In response to these and many other mental health challenges that predate the pandemic, the United Way of Northwest Vermont launched the Mental Health Initiative earlier this year. This collective impact project leverages the participation of 100-plus community members to solve, at scale, many of our most pressing problems in the system of mental health care.
We have three volunteer-led action teams focused on the Mental Health Initiative’s initial priorities: workforce development for mental health providers, youth mental health, and suicide prevention.
The most effective solutions will come from engagement with mental health professionals and — very importantly — our neighbors with lived experience. But we know mental health touches all of us and overlaps with every sector, system and institution in our society, which is why we have welcomed the participation of representatives from our schools, early childhood education, local and state government, religious and civic groups, and many other organizations and alliances that focus on mental health care and substance misuse.
We are excited about our early successes in promoting the effective integration of mental health first aid training into workforce programs and programs that support our oldest and youngest Vermonters. Mental health first aid is a course that teaches people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. We have also helped to connect mental health professionals with important cross-cultural training so that our neighbors can access care that better meets their needs.
Much like knowing how to administer CPR, understanding how to support someone in a mental health crisis can be a life-saving skill. Vermonters can contact the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center to learn more about mental health first aid training and other suicide prevention resources.
Together we can make a difference, strengthening timely access to appropriate mental health care for each other. Vermont has always been a community of communities where neighbors help neighbors. We are stronger when we come together to solve our problems.
The United Way’s Mental Health Initiative is all about elevating voices and bringing diverse perspectives together to not only respond to urgent needs but to create a stronger system of mental health care for all of us. Join our vibrant conversations, our shared decision-making and our implementation of steps that aim to keep our neighbors safe and thriving.
Steven Berbeco is the director of United Way of Northwest Vermont’s Mental Health Initiative, a collective impact project launched in early 2022. He lives in Winooski with his family and serves on the Winooski School Board.