How is Vermont expanding mental health care services?

Published: Apr. 8, 2021 at 6:09 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Gov. Phil Scott made it clear in his 2021 inaugural address that he’s committed to improving mental health care in Vermont this year.

“I’ll propose more improvements to our mental health system and renew our focus on strengthening drug education, prevention and treatment programs. And I encourage everyone to learn more about this work and be part of the process,” Scott, R-Vermont, said during his address in January.

This is an important issue to many of you, including the Moore family. Their brother, Adrian, struggled with mental health and substance abuse most of his life. He was a documented danger to himself and to the public.

Adrian’s sisters say the system in Vermont failed him by letting him out of their sight and their care. He ended up homeless, stole a car and crashed into a 58-year-old woman from Shelburne driving to work.

As we continue our special investigation, “WCAX Investigates: The Face of Mental Health Care in Vermont,” I talk to Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrell to get a clearer picture of what’s happening in the state.

Reporter Céline McArthur: What is the state specifically doing that now versus what was done before?

Commissioner Sarah Squirrell: That is such a great question. We are in a great position right now, where there is an incredible amount of additional federal funding coming into the state. So, in addition to funding, that’s in our budget to support and expand initiatives such as mobile response, which would allow us to respond more proactively in the community for children, youth and their families who are experiencing a crisis. We have investments that are targeted toward strengthening the connection for individuals who are transitioning out of the correctional system, then back to the community to ensure that they have access to mental health and substance use services and supports. And what policies are in place to differentiate when people with mental impairment should be placed in a secure mental health facility versus the prison system. Yeah, so we have a strong connection and collaboration with our criminal justice system.

And certainly, if an individual, for example, is experiencing a psychiatric crisis, their first interaction in the community could be with law enforcement. But, fortunately, we have a system in which screeners can be called from our community mental health agencies. They can come out, they can assist, they can assess if an individual is experiencing a mental health crisis. And then they’re referred to our mental health system which might need placement in one of our inpatient facilities or connections to ongoing services and supports.

Céline McArthur: Do you think there are enough institutions, agencies and resources to effectively address the mental health needs of Vermonters?

Commissioner Sarah Squirrell: Vermont is touted as being a national example of having an exemplary system of care. And we’re always pushing ourselves to do better. And I think one of the things that we’re really grappling with right now is capacity.

You know, the pandemic has really had an impact on our workforce. We had to shift to different ways of delivering services very quickly. So our ability to have our workforce rebound as well is also critical.

Céline McArthur: What resources are the state deploying to corrections and police departments to effectively handle mental health issues in the field and in the prisons?

Commissioner Sarah Squirrell: Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the initiatives that we’re working on right now is embedding mental health workers with law enforcement in police barracks across the state. We’re also working on an initiative where we’re working with our community mental health agencies via the correctional system for individuals who are transitioning back to the community probation and parole, to ensure that they have coordinated services in place, whether it be ongoing mental health supports, ongoing substance use supports to really reduce recidivism and those individuals who are at high risk of being rearrested.

Céline McArthur: Do you think that wasn’t happening enough before?

Commissioner Sarah Squirrell: I think our continued work to expand the collaboration between mental health law enforcement and the correctional system has been a real opportunity for growth for the state. I think we have good systems in place.

I asked Squirrell to watch our special report, so we can talk more in depth about the collaboration among the different agencies and what can be learned from Adrian Moore’s story. I will bring you that conversation when it happens.

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