Vermont’s Department of Mental Health is Leading the Way in New England

By Lauren Kiesel and Weng Yee Mooi, CEI Interns

Vermont has made a large commitment to supporting its citizens’ mental health through initiatives launched by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health (DMH). The state’s DMH is innovative in its level of holistic compassion and positive goals and practices.  Its vision is that “mental health will be a cornerstone of health in Vermont” and that “people will live in caring communities with compassion for and a determination to respond effectively and respectively to the mental health needs of all citizens” (Vermont Department of Mental Health, 2019).

The Department of Mental Health provides Vermonters access to “effective prevention, early intervention, and mental health treatment and supports as needed to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities” (VT DMH, 2019). It values and embraces the concepts of recovery and resiliency. In terms of trauma-informed practices and compassionate and comprehensive care and development of its people, Vermont is a leader.

Bringing Holistic Mental Health Care to Vermont Communities

Since its birth, Vermont’s Department of Mental Health has worked to address mental health in schools with many laws, plans, and agreements to best support students. Significant changes have occurred since 1988, when Vermont passed Act 264, requiring that human services and public education work together, involving parents and coordinating services for better outcomes for children and families.

Vermont, a largely rural state, has realized that to reach those who need services most, it will have to bring the mental health care directly to the people in need. Vermont has been promoting school-based mental health, because it has learned that providing mental health services at the point of contact most youth have with city and state governments, public school, reaches the most people. In 2018, the DMH used its $266,000,000 budget to reach more than 25,000 Vermont residents with its community service, outreach, and crisis teams (VT DMH, 2019). While the Commissioner of the DMH continues to urge state agencies to work even more closely together to effectively coordinate mental health services, Vermont is still an exemplar for collaboration between state government and local communities.

How the Department of Mental Health Serves Vermont

In an effort to promote services, Vermont’s Department of Mental Health held four forums this summer  to discuss mental health care in the state, as well as inquire public opinion for developing a 10-year-plan for improvement. In addition to these forums, the state has multiple on-going workgroups, initiatives, and resources to support positive mental health in schools.

The Child & Family Trauma Workgroup, formed by the Governor’s Commission on Psychological Trauma, is an inter-organization collaboration with more than 20 members who work to build trauma-informed systems of care in the state. The people who obtain these services “have multiple complex experiences of trauma in their history.” Because of this, there are significant implications on how to provide these services (Vermont Child & Family Trauma Workgroup, 2014). Led by the Agency of Human Services, Vermont uses a Strengthening Families™ Approach in systems serving children and families across Vermont. This research-informed approach aims to “increase family strengths, enhance child development, and reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect” by building 5 protective factors that bring families and communities together (Vermont Strengthening Families, 2017).

There are also several school-based programs including Jump on Board for Success (JOBS), a collaboratively run program serving as vocational “support for youth ages 16 to 21 who are experiencing significant emotional or behavioral challenges” (VT DMH, n.d.). The DMH also sponsors the Vermont Suicide Prevention Coalition (VSPC), which provides schools with resources, trainings, and events related to suicide prevention (Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, n.d.). The DMH recently published a 3-page informative bulletin, Understanding Mental Health’s Role in Relation to the School Violence Discussion, that explains the contributing factors for school violence, the importance of mental health support, and examples of appropriate mental health services (VT DMH, 2018).

Department of Mental Health Inspires SEL Work in Vermont Schools

Statewide, Vermonters follow the Vermont Early Learning Standards developed by the Agency of Education for students birth to Grade 3. These standards are focused on developing SEL skills alongside academic skills, which can be seen in several schools’ efforts. Districtwide, Chittenden South Supervisory Union School District is participating in the Social and Emotional Learning Research Alliance from the Regional Educational Laboratory Research Program at the Institute of Education Sciences. Essex Westford School District has stakeholders working on the development of a strategic action plan toward incorporating SEL more deeply into their curriculum.

Since 2008, the South Burlington School District has been implementing their Mindfulness Program, which it recently began evaluating. It “has been building skills in students and educators to help regulate emotions, reduce stress, and nurture inner lives. The work is making a difference in the lives of our students, families, and educators” (South Burlington School District, n.d.).

The Vermont Department of Mental Health has inspired educators and stakeholders throughout the state to focus on enhancing compassionate communities by increasing access to mental health services. They continue to provide important mental health support to their citizens. Next month, on October 22nd, 2019, the DMH will present Better Together: Alliances in Mental Health and Wellness, a conference that brings together key stakeholders to discuss how to better collaborate on mental health services. Other states might consider whether developing a Department of Mental Health in their own governments could help them focus on delivering quality mental health services to all citizens.

Stay tuned for an upcoming comprehensive report on the State of Mental Health in Vermont Schools.

References

General Assembly of the State of Vermont. (1988). Act 264. Vermont State Government.

LaWare, C. D. (2008, October 30). Trauma informed system of care. State of Vermont Agency of Human Services.

South Burlington School District. (n.d.). Mindfulness. South Burlington School District Website.

Regional Educational Library. (n.d.) Social and emotional learning research alliance. Institute of Education Sciences.

Vermont Child & Family Trauma Workgroup. (2014, July). Vermont child & family trauma workgroup. Vermont Department of Mental Health.

Vermont Department of Mental Health. (2018, March 14).  Understanding mental health’s role in relation to the school violence discussion.  Agency of Human Services.

Vermont Department of Mental Health. (2019). About us.  Agency of Human Services.

Vermont Department of Mental Health. (2019, October 22). Save the Date: Better Together: Alliances in mental health and wellness. Agency of Human Services.

Vermont Department of Mental Health. (n.d.).  Jump on board for success (JOBS). Agency of Human Services.

Vermont Strengthening Families. (2017). 2017 Strengthening Families Vermont: State profile. The Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Vermont Suicide Prevention Center. (n.d.). Vermont suicide prevention center. Center for Health and Learning.

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