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Barre Collaborative Addresses Mental Health Creatively


by Emily Kaminsky


“I’m so stressed-out!”

When was the last time you uttered, or thought, those words? What did you do next? Did you take a deep breath and drink some water? Did you start writing in your journal, or sketch a picture? Did you call a friend? Or did you grab another cigarette, cup of coffee or candy bar?  Did you blow a fuse, yell at someone, storm off, or hide under the covers?

For anyone who finds it challenging to cope with stress in a healthy way, 23 Summer Street in downtown Barre is a place to get support, relief, and skills in a creative and therapeutic environment. Housed in an unassuming red-brick building is what some describe as a creative space, a community center, a beautiful place to be. A place where people from all walks of life come together to create art, practice laughter yoga, engage in mindfulness practices, and learn how to cook wholesome meals together.

It’s called the Wellness Collaborative and it’s run by Washington County Mental Health Services (WCMHS), the area’s 45-year-old mental health agency. And it’s open to anyone willing and able to participate in a creative group setting.

Ellia Cohen is the program director of the Wellness Collaborative, now in its second year of operation. Funding comes from client health insurance reimbursements—and now from the state’s Department of Health, too, thanks to Act 79, enacted in 2012 to reform mental health care in Vermont.

“My work is an approach to help and balance with all different kinds of modalities to self-empower people to take better care of themselves,” Cohen says. “Participants get to see that on their own they are able to reduce their stress and improve their mood by using different coping skills and strategies.”

Cohen oversees five self-care groups, which meet weekly for seven weeks. Contracted professionals often facilitate the groups, which include a Kripalu yoga group, Narrative Art Journaling, Cooking as Self-Care, and a group with guest clinicians who focus on healing with sound and music. There’s also Open Arts Studio, an alternative program centered around the fine arts that is getting incredible feedback, according to Cohen. “On a Wednesday afternoon, a dozen people and sometimes more are upstairs doing art. We’re having challenges now with how many we can fit,” she says.

The collaborative’s contractors include Lisa Mase of Montpelier-based Harmonized Cookery, whose website proclaims, “Heal yourself with food as medicine.”  She co-facilitates the Cooking as Self-Care group with Cohen, helping participants learn how to cook healthy food, shop and eat mindfully. After the course, participants often don’t want it to end—they want to “bottle it up and take it home with them,”  Mase reports. “We say, ‘You can! You can take the skills home, connect with people, remind yourselves of tools and strategies.” Throughout the program, she says, people learn self-reliance. “By the end of the group, they can say, ‘I got really stressed-out, took a deep breath and had some water and felt better.’”

WCMHS executive director Mary Moulton points to the Wellness Collaborative and similar initiatives integrated into her agency’s programs as a means to help clients avoid crisis through alternatives to traditional treatment. “We have a lot of programming that helps people who have more intense needs around their treatment,” she says. “We want to do more…We’ve opened up some of those alternative treatment modalities at the Summer Street location.” She adds that 3,000 WCMHS clients are receiving some sort of alternative wellness therapy as part of their treatment.

Outside of the Wellness Collaborative, WCMHS’s alternatives include a doula program operated in partnership with Central Vermont Medical Center. “It’s very new and very different,” says Moulton. “Doulas—someone who is trained to assist a woman during childbirth and who may provide support to the family after the baby is born—are offered to pregnant women. Ours are specially trained to work with women who have experienced trauma in their lives. They provide support, parent education, childbirth class, and one-on-one support through birth.”

“All of this programming is part of an effort to integrate mental health services with the medical system, all the while reducing stigma associated with seeking mental health support,” she continues. She describes a scenario that she hopes will soon become commonplace. “We want doctors to write people a prescription to come to our laughter yoga class. We want them to say ‘Don’t worry that you’re signed up at WCMHS. You will experience something that will lower your stress and enhance your health.’ If we get to that level of integration with doctors, I feel like we will have done something really good for our mental health program and community.”