By Steven Berbeco
Editor’s note: 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.
Youth mental health has been a priority of our state government and many organizations. During the pandemic, when so many social structures became unsteady, Vermont prioritized child care and school-aged youth through generous financial assistance programs and significant and swift regulatory changes. As a result, we were able to keep many of our youngest Vermonters in some semblance of normalcy during the chaos of world-wide disruptions.
There are many hard-fought lessons from the Covid pandemic about the importance of early childhood education, after school programs, and of course our public and private schools. Yet, there haven’t been the sweeping, systems-wide changes to youth mental health that many anticipated in response to the elevated appreciation of youth-focused programs, organizations, and professionals. As we recover now from another natural disaster, the stakes are even higher.
Legislative testimony this past session lifted up several worrying trends among our youth: violent outbursts, sexualized behaviors, threats of harm to self or others, and more. As schools responded by hiring mental health professionals as full-time employees, there were several unintended consequences for community mental health designated agencies like Howard Center and NCSS, including exacerbating the workforce shortage and potentially reducing designated agencies’ access to Medicaid dollars.
The news from the Vermont Dept. of Health’s monthly suicide report is also alarming. Tracking suicidal ideation and self-directed violence, the rate of emergency department visits for 15- to 24-year-olds is higher than any other age group. Worse yet, the rate of suicide deaths for this age group has nearly doubled when compared to a three-year average. We are clearly heading in the wrong direction.
The mental health support that our youth need and deserve is more than the roughly 1,300 private therapists in Vermont can offer, and long wait times at designated agencies mean that many children can’t access the services they need, when they need them. The change that we need to undertake is across the mental health system of care, a shift in our thinking about our responsibility as neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family members.
The Mental Health Initiative, a program of United Way of Northwest Vermont, is leveraging the collective impact of more than a hundred volunteer participants to promote meaningful interventions that we can all have a hand in. We are increasing access to Mental Health First Aid and amplifying support for new mental health positions that can provide more of the sub-acute and pre-crisis care we need, like mental health peer support specialists and behavioral technician specialists. More upstream care can mean fewer visits to the emergency department.
We are also working closely with community partners to support the purchase and use of “therapy pods” in schools. Many schools lack a quiet and private place for mental health professionals to meet with a student. By introducing a stand-alone pod in a school, students can better access the services they need, and providers don’t have to scramble to find an empty classroom, auditorium, or hallway.
Our volunteer participants are developing tools for schools and other youth organizations to access suicide prevention resources. Vermont has many great training workshops for staff and students, and we are aiming to make it easier to access relevant services. We are also strengthening support for graduating high school students, so that they can have continuity of mental health services when moving on to college, trade school, professional life, or other post-secondary plans.
The recent flooding in Vermont affected us all, directly and indirectly, and the aftereffects of so much loss are slowly coming into focus. The Disaster Distress Helpline can be a good resource for disaster crisis counseling, just call or text: 1-800-985-5990.