STORY BY MEGAN DEMAREST
PHOTOGRAPHY JIMMY iENNER, JR.
United Counseling Services has been empowering members of the community to live healthy, meaningful lives for 65 years.
Since 1958, United Counseling Services has been an essential part of Bennington County’s integrated healthcare system. It started as the merging of two separate entities—Bennington Family Service Center and Bennington Child Guidance Clinic—and has grown to become a powerful force in creating wellness, spreading awareness, and giving people of all ages the tools and resources needed to nurture their mental health. In its 65th anniversary year, UCS now operates 15 facilities in Bennington County with a nearly 300-person strong team of support professionals dedicated to providing innovative services and programming. As the staff celebrates 65 years of caring for Shires residents, they look back on the growth that has happened since its inception and plan for the future of their impactful organization.
In the 1950s, the landscape of mental health care looked vastly different than it does today. Institutionalized care was the norm, which separated people who were struggling with mental illness or developmental disabilities from almost all aspects of society. Treatments often missed the mark on root causes and are now considered extreme measures by today’s guidelines. Perhaps worst of all, there was no standard of ethics by which to measure acceptable or unacceptable practices. Despite these difficulties, UCS remained true to its core purpose: serving the mental health needs of its community. Medical advancements and a greater understanding of mental illness have had to be navigated swiftly and carefully, and the team at UCS has been on point, at times meeting challenges with minor changes in procedure, and at other times overhauling the entire structure.
Long-term staff members at UCS have worked actively to stay on top of systemic and societal shifts for decades and have an invaluable perspective on where health care has been and where it’s currently going. Executive Director Lorna Mattern has been with UCS for 32 years—most recently as the Director for Youth and Family Services before moving into her present role in 2016. She has seen much growth and change during that time.
“There has been an increase in acuity,” shares Mattern. “Children and youth are struggling with depression and anxiety at alarming rates, families are struggling with substances, poverty, and other issues that contribute to trauma. I am hopeful that we will be ok, but the significant change in the landscape is disheartening.” Hope comes not only from the indispensable work that UCS does, but also in the form of community support. Nadine Wisher, a Direct Support Professional who’s held the same position for 40 years, gives insight on the shift from institutionalized care to community-based care: “The biggest change that has impacted our clients is the community and its willingness to be open to accepting them. When I first started at UCS, our clients lived very secluded and sheltered lives. Vermont later deinstitu- tionalized the state school and hospital model, and placed people back into their communities, which have only grown more accepting over the years.” Although the community-based model has been in process since the passage of the federal Community Mental Health Act in 1963, the Brandon Training School, which was the only state institution in existence for de- velopmentally-disabled Vermonters, didn’t close until 30 years later in 1993, a major change that Wisher witnessed personally. The state’s first official mental health institution, the Vermont State Hospital, closed in 2011 after patients were evacuated during Hurricane Irene; the damage—both to the physical facility and to its already poor reputation over the years—was too great to overcome. After each closure, UCS was there to provide services to the people affected.
UCS has weathered more than just literal storms and major changes in medicine and government policies. The pandemic shined a spotlight on already-present societal issues that were further aggra- vated by such a formidable stressor. For UCS, it highlighted the need for their services, especially as they saw an increase in the number of people seeking care. Crucial services provided by UCS include outpatient mental health, substance use programs, psychiatric and crisis services, developmental services, suicide preven- tion, youth and family services, community rehabilitation and treatment, and early childhood services. To meet the higher demand for their resources, UCS had to change course and focus on emergency initiatives like increased telehealth and medication delivery services, creative housing solutions (like the Tiny Homes Project), “warm lines” to support parents grappling with children at home during lock-down, and much more.
“It amazes me what our staff members do every day,” reveals Heidi French, Director of Community Relations and Development. “We want to get out the message that our work culture here is great, because it really is. We care,” adds French, “and we’re tied to this community, helping as many people as we can.”
While remaining adept at managing all of these changes over time, UCS staff never stop looking toward the future and are constantly working toward improving upon their existing services, programs, and events. In addition to long-standing mainstays like the Employee Assistance Program, Head Start, and Early Head Start, new programs and initiatives have recently been implemented, such as Equine Assisted Therapy, Finding Access to Services and Treatment (FAST), an embedded clinician at the Shaftsbury State Police Barracks, and Psychiatric Urgent Care for Kids (PUCK). “We continue to be very proud of the work we are doing through the PUCK program, which diverts children and youth who are in a mental health crisis from utilizing the Emergency Department or the police. We were excited to receive grant funding from the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) to support the hiring of dedicated staff. We are grateful to VCF and are close to hiring 2 staff who will be the primary people providing support, services, and treatment for kids and their families,” says Mattern.
With 65 years of pride to usher them into this celebratory year, the UCS team is thrilled to bring its many special events to the community in 2023. Regular annual events like the popular Barn Sale in September and the Superhero 5K race in November will be complimented by new events in honor of the big anniversary. The Barn Sale is well-known in Vermont and beyond, bringing in hundreds of people to Manchester each year looking for a special bargain. While it is not officially their event, UCS has been the lucky beneficiary of the funds raised from the Barn Sale, and in 2022, the event broke records with the highest fundraising year to date. Now in its 6th year, the Superhero 5K is a fun, family-friendly race that has grown considerably in participation since it began. Last year, it boasted its highest registration numbers yet and raised funds for The Gathering Place at Camp Ondawa in Sunderland, which offers people with intellectual disabilities a camping experience close to home with people they trust. Notable new additions to the roster include evenings with both the Me2 Orchestra and global public speaker Kevin Hines. Mattern shares her enthusiasm about these new special events. “I am really excited about hosting Kevin and Margaret Hines in October, who have an incredible story to share about mental illness and recovery. Kevin is an inspiration and a wonderful presenter who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and has now dedicated his life to helping others. I also encourage everyone to attend the Me2 Orchestra event in May,” adds Mattern, “which is made up of talented musicians living with mental illness and those who support them. And the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester is a wonderful place to hear them.”
UCS has even more to celebrate this year. In 2022, they received a three-year Center of Excellence accreditation by Vermont Care Partners, which is a network of 16 member agencies that provide mental health, substance use, and developmental disability services and supports throughout Vermont. This accreditation is based on strict quality and performance measures and was accomplished during a particularly challenging time, not just for Vermont or the U.S., but for the entire world. The World Health Organization has officially declared, “there is no health without mental health. Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The UCS team exemplifies this statement in all that they do, with every service, program, event, and caring individual that deepens their core mission statement of “building a stronger community.” As the region rallies to join UCS in acknowledging all their work and achievements, there can also be moments of appreciation and sighs of relief that such a committed, experienced team is tending to the mental health needs of Bennington County.
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