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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

New Collaboration To Provide Mental Health Services To Homeless

A collaboration between a homeless shelter and a psychiatric hospital in Brattleboro has a goal of preventing a mental health crisis, and improving the mental health of the homeless population.

Brattleboro Retreat and Morningside Shelter will bring a therapist to the shelter two days a week.

The two non-profits started planning a year ago after a community event where a group from Pennsylvania came to talk about their efforts to provide mental health services to homeless people.

"We were both interested in helping this complicated problem of mental health and substance abuse problems that often go untreated or under-treated in the homeless population," said Kurt White, director of outpatient services at the Retreat.

The counselor is providing a mix of formal counseling services and informal support. Those informal services include, "things like being around in the milieu of the shelter, sometimes having meals with folks, coming to meetings, hanging out in common areas and making themselves available to talk when people need to talk. Also, running classes on things like managing stress while looking for a job or managing the stress of parenting while you are living in a homeless shelter," White explained.

The therapist will also provide formal counseling services for mental health and substance abuse problems.

"We're reaching people who might not otherwise be reached. One of the things that keeps me up at night is that so many people with mental health and substance problems never get help for the problems that they have," White said. "Those who come in for treatment, we can help them really well. Effectiveness of treatment is very good. But the people that we can't get in the front door, even for a single session, we don't help them very well. You can't treat an empty chair as the old saying goes. This program helps to try to engage people that wouldn't otherwise be engaged and they're some of Vermont's most vulnerable people."

The goal of the program is to connect people with more permanent services with providers in the community, like the Retreat, and Health Care and Rehabilitation Services. Many people are not ready for those services initially because of the disruption in their lives, White said, but if they have a positive initial experience of counseling, they will hopefully be able to get the on-going services they need when they stabilize.

"There's a lot of alcohol abuse, opiate, cocaine abuse in Vermont these days and it's over-represented in populations that are homeless. There's a lot of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder among clients in homeless populations, people who have experienced early abuse or abuse in adulthood, often depression and anxiety disorders are also fairly common, and also psychotic disorders, things like schizophrenia or thought disorders where people have things like hallucinations, delusions," White said.

This project is funded by a $20,000 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation's Innovations and Collaborations program. White said the Retreat and Morningside Shelter hope to find a way to continue the program after the one-year grant runs out.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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