BENNINGTON — United Counseling Service leaders and staff told area legislators they need support to help them address youth, mental health, and substance abuse services at their annual legislative breakfast on Monday.
Managers and staff described the challenges they face daily in responding to mental health crises, and local law enforcement echoed the importance of mental health resources for all ages.
Anna Mattison, emergency services manager for UCS, described her experiences working in mobile crisis with the organization during the breakfast, held at UCS’ Bennington offices.
“My first call was actually my very first day,” she said. “We had a gentleman in the woods that wanted to hang himself.”
He also didn’t speak English.
She and other staff managed to get him help, including medication.
UCS executive director Lorna Mattern described another incident, when Mattison dealt with a man who was threatening to shoot himself. She went to talk with him on-scene, in a bulletproof vest.
“We don’t pay enough for that,” Mattern said, to laughs from the audience. “[Our staff] — they’re dealing with threatening situations.”
United Counseling Service, located in Bennington and Manchester, serves those with mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities and substance use disorders. It serves about 1 in 12 Bennington County residents.
Mattern and other staff who spoke identified stigma as a major challenge to their work, and described their outreach efforts in community training sessions on mental health.
“We have to change the culture, and we have to make a decision to do that,” Mattern said.
Katie Aiken, community services manager for youth and family services at UCS, described the importance of education surrounding mental health. She conducts community training sessions on mental health issues, including one on adverse childhood experiences.
She also plans to conduct suicide prevention training sessions in the community.
Several other members of UCS also spoke about their work and needs they see, including Dan Merges, who manages a UCS program that supports people who have recently been incarcerated.
Merges described how UCS clients must frequently navigate confusing “systems of care.”
“Our systems of care are so fragmented, as you all know,” Merges said, addressing the legislators.
“Without United Counseling Service, we’d be in a lot of trouble in this county,” said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette, who spoke about the challenges his department faces, particularly related to youth mental health.
“We are dealing with youth in mental crisis far more than we ever have, and it’s a shame,” he said.
Doucette described people from his department having to go into schools to handle children as young as seven or eight.
Erica Marthage, Bennington County state’s attorney, also spoke to the legislators about the need for family services surrounding trauma, with “complete, holistic” programs.
The court system, she said, is not an appropriate place to deal with mental health needs.
Legislators, UCS staff and community members also spoke back-and-forth about community needs related to mental health, and the challenges surrounding serving those needs. State Reps. Mary Morrissey, Timothy Corcoran II, David Durfee, Nelson Brownell, Jim Carroll and Chris Bates attended the meeting, as did state Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion.
Sears called the opioid crisis and mental health challenges the two most serious social issues in Vermont.
And, he said, legislators don’t know how extensive that need is — in terms of things like how many treatment beds are necessary.
“It’s a juggling act,” said Sears. “I think we as legislators need your advice, frankly, on where we should be going with mental health.”
“I think [Sears] hit it right on the head,” said Carroll, who spoke immediately after Sears. “We need to know what you need.”
Carroll also briefly described his family’s own positive experience with UCS when he was a child, as his family took many wards of the state into their homes.
Durfee, a new state representative, is on the House Committee on Health Care, having requested that assignment after hearing from community members about issues related to health, including opioids.
“Vermonters are asking for certain services to get things done,” he said. “We need to be prepared to fund the things we want to have done.”
Morrisssey, part of the Vermont House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, described how projects to create more mental health treatment beds are often set in the Northern part of the state.
For individuals in Southern Vermont to receive help, they often have to travel. Their support system often can’t make the trip up with them as much as they’d like.
Her committee has been able to add more beds for mental health and substance abuse treatment in Rutland and Brattleboro. But, she said, she’s struck by how low the numbers seem for treatment bed needs.
“The numbers in our committee seems so low,” she said. “I really would love to hear what you feel [this area] would need.”
Audience members also addressed the legislators.
Andrea Malinowksi, program manager of Bennington County for RiseVT, said when she first started in her position last August, it was focused on things like cooking healthy and exercising.
But, she said, until mental health issues are addressed, “we as a society won’t necessarily become healthy.”
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at email@example.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.