United Way of Northwest Vermont
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United for Mental Health: Community Effort Makes It Work

Members of the Hoeppner family, Steven Berbeco from the Mental Health Initiative, and Alexina Federhen Miss Vermont 2022 on a panel at Hotel Vermont on the evening of January 9th.

By Steven Berbeco

The Vermont Mayors Coalition recently announced a 2023 legislative agenda that supports the eight communities represented in the coalition, from Vermont’s largest, Burlington, to some of the smallest, Winooski and Vergennes. It’s exciting to see our elected officials coming together over a priority that has been on the minds of many of us: Mental Health.

As we emerge from the pandemic, again and again our communities have identified access to effective and appropriate mental health services as essential to all of us. For example, the City of Burlington highlighted this last summer by convening a Mental Health Summit for the city’s stakeholders and earlier this month Hotel Vermont hosted a Mental Health Check-In Night with mental health related training sessions and lived-experience storytelling.

Our schools have been a flashpoint in many cases as well, with stories in the news of student behavior far beyond what our teachers and support staff have been used to. It’s not a surprise that the Vermont Superintendent’s Association listed Mental Health as one of its three legislative priorities, right up there with school facilities and the workforce shortage in education.

This strong motivation to promote positive change has developed into a large collective impact project: United Way of Northwest Vermont’s Mental Health Initiative. The most effective changes to the system of mental health care include wide representation, and that is why our participants come from workplaces, schools and child care, local and state government, and of course direct care providers and participants with lived experience, among many other sectors in Vermont.

Together with more than a hundred participants we are identifying and addressing gaps and bottlenecks in the system of mental health care. Our action teams focus on workforce development, suicide prevention, and youth mental health, because these are the highest priorities that our community partners have identified.

The projects that our Mental Health Initiative actions teams have underway aim to make significant incremental change to support our neighbors. For example, current projects include more than doubling the number of certified Mental Health First Aid trainers in the state, improving access to upstream mental health care by amplifying support for Mental Health Peer Support Specialists, and supporting protective factors for Vermonters in crisis to reduce the number of suicides. We also created and distributed a Mental Heath Toolkit for Employers that has already been downloaded more than 1,300 times.

We are excited to join key partners like NAMI Vermont and Vermont Care Partners at Mental Health Advocacy Day on January 30, an important opportunity to stress to our representatives and senators that mental health is health care. Our action teams look forward to being a resource and partner with local and state leaders to improve timely access to mental health services for all Vermonters.

We know that we can strengthen fractured systems and help our neighbors receive better mental health services and support, but it will take all of us working together. To learn more about the Mental Health Initiative, join one of our action teams, and/or sign up to receive updates, visit our website: unitedwaynwvt.org/mental-health-initiative/.

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.