Mental health care 'at crisis point' with counselors overwhelmed


RACHEL LEE CUMMINGS, executive director of Counseling Services of Addison County, says her organization is at a crisis point.
It’s very hard to be a mental health worker right now…everyone is just exhausted. I’m worried about my staff. — Rachel Lee Cummings, CSAC

ADDISON COUNTY — While job openings gape across sectors statewide, scarce human resources can be a matter of life and death in the field of professional mental health support.

“We’re at a crisis point,” said Rachel Lee Cummings, executive director of Counseling Services of Addison County.

Out of CSAC’s approximately 300 employment slots, 52 are empty — that’s over 15%.

“We’re trying to figure out how to leverage our limited resources to meet increasing demand,” Lee Cummings said.

According to Doug Engel, a psychotherapist and private practitioner in Middlebury, Vermont was already short on mental healthcare practitioners, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made it worse.

“The general sense is that what has happened with the pandemic has made most people either depressed or anxious or some combination of both,” Engel said.

Lee Cummings said CSAC’s patients are struggling with increased substance abuse and stress. Levels of anxiety in youth have also risen sharply.

These trends are reflective across the entire state, Lee Cummings said, and Vermont doesn’t have the people to meet the needs of the community.

“Lots of people are leaving the workforce…or going into different careers because they are burned out,” she said.

And it’s not as if folks are clamoring for the open positions — an issue that Lee Cummings said is related to lack of affordable housing and childcare.

“With the current housing crisis, we’re not going to get any more therapists in Middlebury, I just don’t see it happening,” Engel agreed.

Conditions for the folks who are working in the mental health sector are also increasingly unstable and challenging.

“My ability to pay my staff competitively is falling behind,” Lee Cummings said. She said that the support CSAC receives from the state “just isn’t enough.”

Scant resources allocated to mental health has been an issue across the country, some say as a result of lack of understanding of the importance of emotional and psychological support.

“People think of mental health as less real or less debilitating than other illnesses because you can’t see it,” said a Middlebury resident and mental health patient who wished to remain anonymous. But it’s as important as going to the doctor for any other serious disease or hurt, they said. “When I’m deeply depressed, I can’t use my brain to see the way out…I need a doctor who is trained in compassion.”

More and more members of our community are struggling.

Peggy Sax, an independent therapist in Addison County, said the increase makes sense.

“Frankly, it feels like if you’re not experiencing depression and anxiety right now, then you’re not paying attention,” she said.

PRACTIONERS STRUGGLE

Lee Cummings, who stressed that it is entirely appropriate to be struggling right now, added that it’s not just folks with fragile mental health who are having trouble coping — it’s professional mental health practitioners as well.

“My staff has done such an incredible job through a once-in-a-lifetime trauma — they had to deal with their own anxiety, isolation and fear,” she said. “It’s very hard to be a mental health worker right now…everyone is just exhausted. I’m worried about my staff.”

Nonetheless, Lee Cummings said she wants people to know CSAC is “here for you.” Even folks who find themselves on waitlists for more consistent, long-term support can always reach out the Emergency Hotline for immediate help. “We take this really seriously,” she said.

One positive thing that has emerged from the pandemic is significantly more robust telehealth support, added Lee Cummings. This is a huge help to folks with limited access, said Engel, who encourages those who can’t find counselors in Addison County to look elsewhere.

“Here, we’re all full,” said Engel, who will not see any new patients until at least the end of the summer. “But if you can find a good connection with someone elsewhere in the state, or even in the country, and meet over Zoom, that’s what matters.”

Other places to look for support include local community networks.

Lee Cummings said Addison County is lucky because “we have such a tight community.” She believes everyone in the community should be talking about mental health, normalizing it and finding ways to support each other…especially because this crisis isn’t going anywhere. We may be emerging from the pandemic, but the stress and anxiety caused by climate change, political upheaval, systemic oppression and economic instability are as present as ever, Engel and Sax agreed.

“In the short term, it’s really hard to believe that we’re going to get any sense of relief,” Engel said. He thinks the best things we can do are take care of ourselves and build community.

“So much of health is about connection,” Engel said.

And it can feel good to help each other.

“I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t feel invigorated and inspired by people’s resilience,” Sax said.

Lee Cummings agreed. “It’s remarkable work...I’m so proud and grateful,” she said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that we are woefully understaffed.”

“If I could have more staff, I could meet the needs of the community.”

If you’re experiencing a mental health emergency call 911 or the Counseling Service of Addison County emergency hotline at (802) 388-7641.

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Addison County Independent