Vermonters await FEMA mental health aid

Published: Oct. 1, 2023 at 8:11 AM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermonters struggling from mental health crises exacerbated or triggered by Vermont’s flooding have yet to access FEMA-funded programs that can address that pain.

The state currently has an application in to secure grants through FEMA’s Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program. While the application hasn’t been approved yet, Vermont Congresswoman Becca Balint is already pushing to expand those services to include help for substance and alcohol use disorder.

Another Way is a sanctuary in Montpelier for psychiatric survivors. It’s a center for folks in crisis, funded by the Department of Health. A lot of the people the organization sees are homeless, lack basic necessities and are struggling with depression. The number of people entering the space has only increased since the flood.

“There was definitely an increase in intensity over the last couple months, but in a way, we’re just doing what we’ve always done,” said Ken Russell, the Executive Director of Another Way.

Russell says he’s seen not only the mental health of the unhoused decline due to camps washed away or become toxic by flood waste, but of the entire Montpelier community.

“There’s definitely a need for more folks to help other folks with mental health challenges,” said Russell

Studies from the American Psychiatric Association say there are mental health consequences after extreme weather events that require attention, which is why FEMA, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), have their Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program.

“There is a sense of loss, there is a sense of, especially, peoples depending on people’s situations -- some people have lost very little, and some people have lost a great deal. So it varies from person to person, and this program gives people an opportunity to talk things through,” said Donna Nelson, a FEMA representative.

If Vermont’s application for the program is approved, Vermonters struggling with their mental health could access federally funded counseling, supportive or educational contact, assessments, referrals and more. What would not be covered is substance abuse treatment. Substance abuse disorder is a widely accepted consequence of environmental disasters, and we’re seeing it right here in Vermont.

“There’s always a need for mental health support. And as far as addiction, yeah, it’s an ongoing issue, definitely exacerbated by the flood, and definitely a lot of personal tragedies that people are torn up over,” said Russell.

Rep. Balint introduced the Addressing Addiction After Disasters Act with Hawaii’s representative Jill Tokuda. It would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to include services for substance and alcohol use disorder. At this point in time, the bill is being referred to the subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency action.