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Advocates sound the alarm on mental health care shortage in Northeast Kingdom

Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 5:59 PM EDT
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BARTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Northeast Kingdom residents say it has been months since they could access mental health care. Now, they’re raising awareness and pushing state officials to do something about it.

Northeast Kingdom Organizing says they surveyed 42 people over the past few months to find out what the mental health care needs are. They say a lot of people are having a hard time finding quality and mental health care.

“I haven’t seen my actual therapist in over a year,” said Penny Thomas of Northeast Kingdom Organizing. “The 3-year-old who lives with us needs behavioral therapy. We can’t find that anywhere.”

Those are some of the statements made by Northeast Kingdom residents who say they haven’t had access to adequate mental health services during the pandemic or before it.

“No matter which avenue I have taken, it didn’t seem like it mattered,” said Heather Legacy of Northeast Kingdom Organizing.

Legacy says she’s been searching for behavioral counseling for her daughter for six years. She says she’s sought help from Northeast Kingdom Human Services, private therapists and school guidance counselors. She says she was dissatisfied with them all and feels her daughter never got the services she needed.

“They would just take her out for ice cream or take her out to dinner and just have everyday, chatty conversations and like, this is not what I need. I need to get down to the root of the issue and make our relationship and life more beneficial for both of us,” Legacy said.

Members of Northeast Kingdom Organizing say they believe part of the issue is the lack of funding and understaffed teams at certain agencies like Northeast Kingdom Human Services.

Interim Chief of Behavioral Health Noreen Shapiro-Berry says staffing has been a challenge there for years because it’s hard to attract and retain health professionals to rural areas.

But she says services have continued throughout the pandemic, they’re still taking referrals and they’ve set up support lines.

Still, Northeast Kingdom Organizing is urging the state to step in and help bridge the staffing and funding gaps.

“So if we need to redirect some of those funds in the short term to contract with private clinicians through telehealth, let’s do that. Let’s do whatever it takes to get these kids that are in crisis to get them seen and to get them the mental health care that they need,” said Martha Braithwaite of Northeast Kingdom Organizing.

There’s also a shortage of primary care physicians and dentists in the Northeast Kingdom, a pervasive problem throughout rural America.

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