United Way of Northwest Vermont
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United Way launches Mental Health Initiative with community partners

United Way of Northwest Vermont (UWNWVT), in collaboration with community partners, has launched a new Mental Health Initiative to align existing mental health resources, identify gaps in the system of care, and create a shared agenda as we work together to improve timely access to appropriate mental health services in our communities.

Already one of the hardest areas to address, mental health needs have worsened throughout COVID-19. Two years into the pandemic, many people experiencing mental health challenges and the systems designed to help them are at a breaking point.

“The acute mental health crisis so many Vermonters are experiencing is one of the most harmful aspects of the pandemic. Effective solutions that address the challenges our mental health system faces, and that ensure Vermonters can get the care they need, without stigma, are going to require innovation and sustained collaboration. This is exactly what the Mental Health Initiative aims to generate,” said UWNWVT Board member Mark Levine, MD, who also serves as Vermont’s Health Commissioner.

Steven Berbeco, who United Way hired as Director of the Mental Health Initiative, has been meeting with mental health service providers, Vermonters with lived experience, and organizations and alliances focused on mental health who all agree the mental health crisis is a complex problem that no single entity can solve alone.

“Now more than ever, we need to come together to strengthen mental health resources for ourselves and our neighbors,” said Berbeco. “Together, we have identified three initial priorities for the Mental Health Initiative to focus on: Addressing Vermont’s critical labor shortage of mental health providers; strengthening and aligning resources for suicide prevention; and responding to the acute rise in youth mental health needs.”

Berbeco brings a wealth of leadership experience in state, federal and tribal education and social services agencies. He most recently served as Deputy Commissioner of the Child Development Division in Vermont’s Department for Children and Families.

Community partners who will help guide the Mental Health Initiative’s work include Howard Center, Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS), Vermont Care Partners, Spectrum Youth & Family Services, Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, and NAMI Vermont.

The Mental Health Initiative is made possible thanks to funding from the UVM Health Network, IBM and generous individual donors.

Here’s what some of our partners are saying about why the Mental Health Initiative is needed:

  • Catherine Simonson, Howard Center’s Chief Client Services Officer: “We’re grateful to United Way of Northwest Vermont and the other partners in this effort for bringing greater attention to mental health needs in the community. Howard Center serves 19,000 Vermonters every year and all the issues that concerned us before the pandemic are much more worrisome now. We’re seeing growing numbers of people experiencing their first mental health crisis and the acuity of cases is increasing, all while staff recruiting and retention is more difficult than ever. Together we need to find sustainable, equitable solutions to ensure we have the resources necessary to help our neighbors when they need us.”

  • Dr. Steve Broer, Northwestern Counseling & Support Services’ Director of Behavioral Health Services: “We are seeing an increase in needs across the age span, from young children & their families through older Vermonters. At the same time, we are challenged to meet growing demands while trying to sustain a workforce with a livable wage who have been committed to meeting this increase in need across our region. This is an opportunity to be there for individuals who have been reluctant to seek care and are asking for our help. Now more than ever, we need to use all available community resources to be there for those who need our services.”

  • Julie Tessler of Vermont Care Partners on the mental health provider workforce crisis: “For far too long state funding for Vermont’s Designated and Specialized Service Agencies has been relatively stagnant. Staff salaries are often tens of thousands below market rates, with many staff receiving poverty level wages. At the same time, the pandemic exacerbated substance use disorders and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, overdoses, and suicidality for children and adults. With service demands increasing and vacancy rates averaging 20%, the remaining staff have been heroic with some working over 100 hours in a week. We need to do better for Vermonters in need of care, especially life-saving care. To do that, we need adequate funding to be able to recruit and retain a strong workforce.”

  • JoEllen Tarallo, Executive Director of the Center for Health and Learning and the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center: “Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in Vermont. Vermonters have consistently died by suicide at a rate 30 percent higher than the national average. We lose approximately two Vermonters a week to suicide and we are seeing the numbers trend upwards since the pandemic. As we work together to address the mental health crisis, strengthening suicide prevention resources and offering more help, hope, and healing to people in crisis is going to be key.”

  • Mark Redmond, Executive Director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services: “Many of the young people who come to Spectrum already struggle with past trauma and mental health challenges. The increased isolation, loneliness, and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic have taken a major toll on youth mental health. We know that this goes beyond our clients at Spectrum. We need to come together as a community to support each other—especially young people in crisis. Level-funding by the State year after year, while nonprofit costs increase, have finally brought us to the breaking point in Vermont’s mental health system.”

  • Laurie Emerson, Executive Director of NAMI Vermont: “We’ve seen an increase in the mental health needs in our community. When we come together for mental health, we can make a difference. NAMI Vermont is honored to be a partner of the Mental Health Initiative, established by United Way of Northwest Vermont to bring together partners to address the workforce shortage, suicide prevention and youth mental health. The power of connection can be a source of help and support, and NAMI Vermont provides this connection through our lived experience stories from both peers and family members reminding our community that they are not alone.”