For decades, the United Way of Northwest Vermont (UWNWVT) has raised funds on behalf of mental health organizations in Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle counties. In February, however, it announced a new effort to “become more directly involved in assisting change” in the state’s mental health system, according to Mental Health Initiative Director Steven Berbeco.
“The mental health system of care has always been imperfect in Vermont, and the pandemic has laid bare many of the fault lines in that system of care,” Berbeco said. “And it’s become ever more evident throughout the pandemic that mental healthcare is healthcare, as we all continue to experience stress, isolation, and uncertainty that impacts our mental health.”
The Mental Health Initiative intends to function as a “network of networks,” as Berbeco put it, convening service providers, advocacy organizations, policymakers, and “Vermonters with lived experience” in order to “align existing resources, identify gaps in the mental health system of care, and create a shared agenda for next steps in improving resources that help all of us.”
Planning began at UWNWVT well before the public launch of the Mental Health Initiative. “My colleagues spent more than a year doing the necessary background work to ensure this collective impact project got off the ground and was structured well enough to sustain the efforts of more than a hundred community members,” Berbeco noted.
Since then, three “action teams” have formed to address the Mental Health Initiative’s top priorities: workforce development, suicide prevention, and youth mental health. The largest of these, Youth Mental Health, held its first meetings in August, hosting “nearly two dozen attendees” by UWNWVT’s count.
“One of the many things I really enjoy about this work is connecting colleagues whose work overlaps with and intersects with the mental health system of care, so that when our action teams come together, they’re bringing together neighbors who may not have had a chance to talk together or work together on their common problems,” Berbeco observed. “I think it’s really exciting to see the connections that are developing from that and to participate in those conversations.”
In July, the Mental Health Initiative served as one of the sponsors of Mad Pride, a peer-organized event in Burlington. Berbeco also mentioned that Karim Chapman, the executive director of Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, had joined the Mental Health Initiative’s “core team” and its youth action team.
Other psychiatric survivors and mental health consumers can also lend their voices. “We are actively seeking more participants on our action teams,” Berbeco urged.
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