Montpelier, VT — Wednesday marked mental health advocacy day in the Vermont legislature, and served as a reminder of the ongoing struggle to get people help when they need it.

In 2021, capacity pressures had caused logjams in Vermont’s mental health system, and children in a crisis were waiting days for treatment. Skip ahead a year, and those on the frontlines say things haven’t changed all that much.

“This Monday morning, there were 11 youth in the UVM emergency department for mental health needs, and their average length of stay at that point was 11.2 days,” said Haley McGowan, a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center. McGowan said if you include kids waiting elsewhere in the hospital for a mental health placement, the average wait extends to 15 days. This appears to be the case in many hospitals.

“I will highlight the dire situation by saying as of this morning at Central Vermont Medical Center, we have a 14 year old boarding in the emergency department who has been there for 18 days as well as a 16 year old who has been there for 14 days with no end in sight or disposition for either of those situations,” said Dr. Karren Kurrle.

In an effort to make fundamental changes to the system, Vermont lawmakers in the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare are considering a trio of bills to build up Vermont’s mental health infrastructure.

“It really depends on where you are in the state as to what you can expect as a response for a mental health crisis,” says Kristen Chandler, Vice President of Washington County Mental Health Services. “The consistent thing that I hear from mostly police and mental health crisis clinicians is that we need more resources.”

The first bill that is being considered would help free up space in Vermont’s hospitals by opening up peer-operated respite centers, a place to go for those who could leave the hospital, but aren’t ready to go home.

The second bill would help give the centers a steady supply of staffing with a peer support specialist certification program. The final piece of legislation would create the mental health crisis response working group, aimed at getting law enforcement, EMS, emergency departments, and healthcare providers on the same page.

Dan Towle, a peer support staff member said, “The next step in the evolution of crisis response is adding a peer response crisis worker as the third leg of the stool of law enforcement, social worker clinician, and peer support crisis worker.”