BRATTLEBORO — Formerly home to Brattleboro Pharmacy, a Canal Street building is now hosting a youth stabilization program for those between the ages of 12 and 18 to help support clinical, peer and case management supports as an alternative to hospitalization and a diversion from the emergency room.
“But it’s not just the youth,” said George Karabakakis, CEO of Health Care & Rehabilitation Services (HCRS). “It’s also their families and their supporters and their caregivers, to really give them the connections and the resources that they might need to remain in the community.”
An open house held Thursday was attended by school officials and representatives from social service agencies.
Karabakakis said he believes connections provided through the program can make a difference in the lives of youth. He called the peer support piece of the program “really critical,” seeing it as “a really important way to engage and connect them.”
“As opposed to feeling kind of formal and clinical, it’s really about making those connections and helping them get through whatever they’re experiencing,” he said. “These days, it’s challenging, particularly after three-and-a-half years of COVID.”
The program is funded through the Vermont Department of Health, Vermont Department of Mental Health and congressionally directed dollars advocated by former U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. It’s one of three similar programs happening statewide.
Samia Abbass, program clinician, said the funding came about because of a national crisis over youth needing help for mental health crises. She noted hospitals aren’t the best places for people experiencing suicidality, suicidal thoughts or intense symptoms of mental health crises.
“The hospital here was really struggling during the pandemic years,” she said.
Abbass and Zenni Muhammad, peer support advocate for the program, agreed they were “sort of building the plane while flying it” when Abbass described how the program is being developed.
A crisis team at HCRS is handling referrals via phone calls and emails. They take calls at all hours of the day for adults and children.
Muhammad said peer support is “a really radical model” based off someone with lived experience supporting another person going through mental health challenges.
“So it’s really based on relationship building, mutuality and connection, all those types of things. Instead of it being someone going somewhere to receive services, it’s someone going to someone else for support,” said Muhammad, who uses their own lived experience to connect with youth. “It’s about accessibility and it’s also about deconstructing the mental health system that we have right now.”
Abbass said mental health treatment isn’t always consensual, as it could be mandated by schools, parents or others.
“It’s not necessarily something they have a lot of control over, and that’s something I really struggle with as a clinician,” she said, seeing the program as a way to offer more variety of support for youth.
At the facility, counseling will be available one-on-one and with families. Abbass also hopes to have group meetings to discuss challenges.
Muhammad plans to offer activities inside of the building and out in the community. As a native Vermonter from Brattleboro who attended local schools, they said they feel they have “an interesting perspective” and could have “a different understanding of issues” experienced by local youth.
HCRS has been working with youth in the program since February. Abbass said participants have experienced challenges with suicidality, suicidal thoughts, self harm, substance use, struggles with boundaries, anxiety, depression and trauma.
“My hopes are that we will be able to make a positive impact on the lives of our most vulnerable youth in this community by offering them a safe affirming space to process big feelings and wrap-around supports,” said Mary LaVigne, case manager and coordinator for the program. “It has been a gift to be able to be in this role. I am excited and hopeful that we will continue to see our youth do incredible things. I feel so lucky and happy.”
Abbass said her dream is to offer a day program or blocks of time for youth to have a safe space and “receive community.” To learn more, email, email@example.com.