Facility aims to treat mental health disorders without medication

BROOKLINE, Vt. (WCAX) When it comes to addiction, the focus is often on the opioid crisis. But mental health experts say other disorders are contributing to the problem and they say prescribing more drugs may not be the solution. Our Adam Sullivan shows you another option in Brookline.

Madeline Rico says she is bipolar and has had suicidal thoughts. For the last year, the Baltimore native has been living at Inner Fire. It's a therapeutic community residence in Brookline.

"It's very difficult because I'm having a hard time sleeping. I have a lot of health issues that have been unresolved," Rico said.

Rico is prescribed Lithium. The eight-bed facility, which celebrated a $1 million addition Tuesday, aims to taper her off that medicine.

"Typically the psychiatrists medicate them but they are not dealing with the issues at hand," said Beatrice Birch of Inner Fire.

Doctors and counselors are part of Inner Fire's mission to address those underlying problems. But the facility also uses art and community chores, like gardening and wood chopping, to give Rico and others more of a stake in their own recovery.

"How to be motivated and how to cope with whatever task is in our way," Rico said.

The nonprofit raised $1 million for the new housing unit. It's looking to raise another $1.7 million for more beds and a meeting space.

On this day, journalist and author Robert Whitaker spoke about his life's work writing about medicine. When it comes to treating mental health, he says the system is failing, relying too often on prescription drugs.

"The outcomes for people in the United States and other rich countries are much worse than they are in the poor countries of the world for the same diagnosis. And actually, long-term recovery rates for people diagnosed with schizophrenia are now worse than they have been in 100 years," Whitaker said.

Though Whitaker acknowledges that medication can be what some people need, a 2017 study from Columbia University, says the benefits of antipsychotics are much greater than any potential side effects.

"We help strengthen them on a deeper soul-spiritual level, their reasons why they went to the doctor in the first place," Birch said.

But the facility is not cheap and is paid for out of pocket. A yearlong stay costs nearly $165,000. Rico says it's worth it.

"Helping the community as well and making sure it builds up our self-esteem and confidence and helping others, as well," she said.

The caregivers here say it's about offering people a choice, something they say could and should be used as a model for communities across the country.