United Way of Northwest Vermont
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Berbeco: Becoming protective factors for each other with Mental Health First Aid

United Way Mental Health Initiative Director Steven Berbeco speaks on a panel at Hotel Vermont's Mental Health Check-in Night

Tue, 05/02/2023
by Steven Berbeco 

May is Mental Health Awareness month. So often when we hear about mental health – especially lately – we hear about problems and cracks in the system. It can be overwhelming and difficult to know what we can do as individuals and community members to support each other when so many of us are struggling.

This mental health crisis we keep hearing about in the news and in our communities is real and dire, but it is not hopeless. As a community, we have the power and the capacity to be protective factors for each other.

Representative Becca Balint made headlines recently by proposing her first piece of federal legislation, a bill that takes aim squarely at the youth mental health crisis. The bill directs nearly $25 million to supporting schools’ access to Mental Health First Aid training. This national training program teaches participants to identify and respond to symptoms of mental illness and substance use disorder. It gives more of us the skills to step in and help each other before a visit to the Emergency Department.

This effort is aligned with our state legislature’s recent efforts as well. Last year the legislature passed Act 112, which created a two-year grant program that supports Mental Health First Aid for school staff using a version of the training especially for youth. Substantial funding was allocated to support this: $2.5 million for Mental Health First Aid and related training, as well as $500,000 especially for mental health support for the educators themselves.

Yet, Vermont only has about a dozen certified Mental Health First Aid trainers across the state, not nearly enough to meet the anticipated need of schools, youth-serving organizations, community associations, and others.

In response, United Way of Northwest Vermont’s Mental Health Initiative has supported the certification of ten of our participants to become Mental Health First Aid trainers. These volunteers come from a broad range of organizations with wide professional reach, such as the Vermont Principals Association. Our plan is to more than double the number of Mental Health First Aid trainers in the state, to increase awareness of this important and potentially life-saving training, and to reduce barriers to accessing it for all of us.

Only by looking out for one another can we turn the tide on the number of deaths by suicide. Last year, youth in Vermont aged 15-24 had the highest rate of any age group when it came to Emergency Department visits for suicidal ideation and self-directed violence: about one in ten across the state. And in some cases, this safety net failed us, as there was a suicide death among Vermont’s youth almost every month last year.

United Way’s Mental Health Initiative is leveraging the participation of 150-plus community members to solve, at scale, many of our most pressing problems in the system of mental health care. Our participants come from the many places that now overlap with the mental health system of care, including schools, early childhood and higher education, housing, transportation, local and state government, religious and civic groups, and of course direct care providers and community members with lived experience.

Increasing the number of certified Mental Health First Aid trainers in Vermont and making this tool more accessible is just one of many projects our Action Teams are working on. Together, we are supporting each other and finding solutions. We are becoming protective factors for each other.

By bringing together stakeholders from these many sectors and experiences, we are making essential connections across the state that are a part of the solution. Come join our conversations – together we can make a difference in mental health for our families, our neighbors, our friends and colleagues, and for all of us in Vermont.

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.

Learn more about United Way’s Mental Health Initiative & get involved: www.unitedwaynwvt.org/mental-health-initiative/