Advocates say investing in peer support is key in addressing a growing mental health crisis

Local News

MONTPELIER – It’s no secret that 10 months of isolation and uncertainty have taken a toll on Vermonters’ mental health, and advocates are now warning lawmakers that this growing crisis needs to be met with significant changes to the state’s mental health system.

Dr. JoEllen Tarallo, Executive Director of the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, urged the House Healthcare Committee and to consider dedicating a position in state government toward overseeing and addressing suicide prevention efforts.

“This position would oversee suicide prevention strategies throughout the state and maximize the impact of existing programs,” Dr. Tarallo said.

Several mental health advocacy organizations are making a push for more people with lived experience in recovering from a mental health crisis to be involved in supporting people who are currently struggling.

Dan Towle said he’s experienced both sides of that support process.

“Soon after moving to Vermont, I discovered a peer support group run by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Vermont, and it changed my life,” Towle said.

Among other roles, Towle now works as an operator answering calls on the Pathways Vermont Support Line, which provides 24/7 coverage to all Vermonters seeking support and connection. The number to call or text is 833-VT-TALKS (833-888-2557).

“Peer support has been well-researched and documented as a highly cost-effective practice with a myriad of benefits,” Towle said. “Other research has demonstrated that peer support is associated with significantly fewer inpatient and emergency service hours, and significant improvements in healing, empowerment and satisfaction.”

Towle and other speakers at Thursday’s hearing said that people with experience in peer support should be more involved in the implementation and planning of peer support services within state agencies and other major health organizations. He added that peer specialists should be used to help deescalate a mental health crisis that would typically be responded to by local law enforcement.

Other speakers agreed that immediate support for individuals suffering from a mental health crisis needs to be strengthened.

“Where do people go to get immediate help?” asked Laurie Emerson, Executive Director of NAMI Vermont. “Do we continue to keep bringing people into the emergency room? No. We need to invest in crisis stabilization programs.”

Karim Chapman, Executive Director of Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, said that many people who are sent to the emergency room due to a mental health crisis often face a series of challenges afterward.

“There’s no reason why we can’t give someone in care a healthy transition when they’re leaving and going into a home or some kind of support,” Chapman said. “Having someone leave a facility and be homeless is just not right.”

Before testimony closed for the afternoon, Rep. Bill Lippert (D) said advocates’ suggestions will be taken into account as the Vermont Legislature moves forward this session.

“We’ve heard a lot from the Department [of Mental Health], we’ve now heard a lot from peer support and others who are doing important work,” Rep. Lippert said. “I think all of that will stand us in good stead for then looking at budget issues as we come back to issues around the mental health system of care next week.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide or other mental health issues, you are not alone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at (800)-273-8255.

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