By Aaron Retherford
The effects of Tropical Storm Irene are still be felt in areas of the Green Mountain State. However, not all of those effects are bad.
Tropical Storm Irene flooded Vermont State Hospital and washed away housing for 51 residents, who were some of the most seriously ill psychiatric patients in the state.
That crisis allowed the Vermont Department of Mental Health to shift its focus from a medical model to a recovery model as it donated $1 million in emergency funds to peer services. That led to the creation of the Wellness Workforce Coalition, a peer services network that helps hundreds of Vermonters each year.
WWC is made up of 13 peer-run organizations throughout the state, offering different types of support at each of the organizations. Vermont Vet-to-Vet in Northfield offers support for veterans. The Wellness Co-op focuses on 18-35-year-olds, but it doesn’t turn away anyone. Alyssum, Inc. offers a safe home-like setting for those going through a crisis.
WWC is all about breaking down the barriers that prevent people from receiving help. WWC’s member organizations are supported by grants and offer free services. Also, Vermont Center for Independent Living, the parent organization of WWC, is willing to meet with people in their homes if transportation is an issue.
Psychiatric help might be a better alternative for some people. But for those who prefer a non-clinical environment, WWC offers a peer-based type of counseling, which has its own benefits. Or people can use both interchangeably.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is the relationship-building we’ve done between the peer-run organizations and the designated mental health agencies because there was a time when people thought peer services couldn’t exist in the traditional mental health world,” WWC coordinator Julie Brisson said. “It had to be two separate things. We’ve learned that it doesn’t. The goal of both sides is to support people in living a better and healthier life. There no longer is a need to choose.”
Brisson said there is also an added trust involved between the parties involved in peer support because the person needing support knows they’re not speaking with a clinician.
One of the misconceptions with peer-run services is that it’s not like groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The peer-run organizations are not volunteers. The staff is paid and trained in the best ways to provide support. The reason why peer-run services are beneficial is because you’re talking to someone who has been in a similar situation.
“We offer something that traditional mental health services don’t offer, and that’s that personal connection of lived experience,” Brisson said. “The (traditional) coalitions are trained not to disclose personal information or personal experience. Whereas if somebody comes in for peer support, the peer worker can say, ‘I understand a lot of what you’re going through. I know our situations are different, but I experienced a similar thing.’ You have that mutuality that you don’t have in the clinical relationship. They’re really trained to see where that person they’re working with is coming from. I think that is a bond that can work for a lot of people.”
In an effort to improve the WWC, Brisson said they are focusing on what training and what ethics peer workers need in Vermont, so they can be the most effective peer workers as possible. Brisson also wants to create a support network and some mentoring opportunities for the peer workers, so they feel like there is group of people doing similar work they can connect with.
For more information on WWC, check out its new website at https://wwcvt.org/