Why Vermonters are struggling to find help with mental health care

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 4:35 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - More Vermonters than ever before are asking for help with their mental health. Our Christina Guessferd looks at how the pandemic has put more strain on the system.

“We are seeing unprecedented numbers right now,” said Mary Moulton, the executive director of Washington County Mental Health Services.

Moulton says 130 adults are on a waitlist for outpatient therapy and it can take weeks or even months to be seen. The facility is forced to serve people based on how dire their situation is.

Typically, there’s only a backlog of 20-40 people.

“That is absolutely in my 30 years of working here at Washington County Mental Health, a number that I have not experienced,” Moulton said.

At Northwestern Counseling and Support Services in Franklin County, while the list isn’t as long-- an average one-to-two-week wait-- their resources are severely limited.

“We can meet with someone, however, to get the quality of care that they’re looking for, we’re just not equipped enough to do that right now,” said Danielle Mitchell, the director of children, youth and family services at Northwestern Counseling and Support Services.

“We could get you in pretty quick. To see you every week would probably be a stretch,” said Dr. Steve Broer, the director of behavioral health services at Northwestern Counseling and Support Services.

Mitchell and Broer say that’s because their caseloads are practically unmanageable due to the extraordinarily high demand for one-on-one sessions.

Both centers are two of 16 total state-designated agencies contracted by the health department to provide care to any Vermonter who walks through their doors. All of those agencies are reporting a significant backlog.

Vermont Care Partners is a nonprofit overseeing the network. As of February, it recorded that 364 adults were waiting 30-90 days for mental health services, and 190 children and youth were waiting 12-60 days.

These agencies also collaborate with private practitioners-- the counselors, social workers or therapists you’ll find on websites like Psychology Today. Most can’t take new clients. But agency leaders say even if you can’t meet with a provider consistently, they can still connect you with critical support.

Agencies have always had supports like mobile outreach and crisis services.

For the people waiting in line, many have established group therapy sessions addressing a variety of conditions.

Providers say they’ll also frequently check in on patients they only see periodically, assigning projects for personal growth.

“So we can supplement it, it’s just not ideal,” Broer said.

Providers say the surge is probably happening now because people kept putting Band-Aids on their anxiety, depression and stress problems during the pandemic, rather than seeking stable help.

They all agree one silver lining is folks are finally taking mental health seriously.

“You need to attend to your mental health and there is absolutely no shame in that,” Moulton said. “Just as with a side ache, if you leave it for four days and you don’t tend to it, it could bring you to the emergency room.”

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