Vermonters delivered the following testimonies, among others, before legislators, nonprofit leaders, clinicians, and peers at Mental Health Advocacy Day, whose four-hour schedule concluded with a story-sharing session on Jan. 31. The annual event, normally held at the statehouse in Montpelier, took place virtually for the second consecutive year.

Brittany: My name is Brittany Brassard, and I am a client of mental health services. I have many times felt the only way to get help I truly need is to go into a crisis. I have not had an easy life. I have struggled many years, going into the hospital both voluntarily and involuntarily.

I don’t have time to fully go into everything, but I do feel it’s important to say that if it wasn’t for the help of community mental health services, I would not have two associate’s degrees and be going for my bachelor’s. I wouldn’t be living in my own apartment, and I would have simply taken my own life many years ago.

I have been told many times that many years ago the state promised to budget for more community-based mental health programs, and yet we are still struggling to find the sources to budget for the help to keep people like myself from going into crisis to get the help they need.

I want to ask and advocate to legislators to truly look at the pros and cons of increasing the mental health budget. I believe it will be more beneficial to have more funds in community mental health than to continue paying for hospitals and other crisis programs in the state. Thank you for your time.

Dan: My name is Dan Towle, and I am a management and law enforcement consultant, as well as a peer support advocate, worker, and volunteer.

I’d like to give a warning that I will be telling of my traumatizing experience in a Vermont emergency department and suicidal ideation. In 1995, I was diagnosed with a major mood condition. DSM-5 would call it bipolar, but I don’t believe in labels for mental illness. I believe we all experience emotions on a spectrum. We’re not ill; we’re not disabled.

Four years ago, I had an episode of very severe depression and anxiety. I felt hopeless and helpless, not wanting to be on this earth. I was taken to the ED at Central Vermont Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. After several hours in one of the perfectly comfortable rooms for non-mental-health, physical-health patients, I was led by a security guard and a mental health tech to the TCA, a locked holding cell designed to isolate individuals presenting with mental health conditions from hospital staff and “normal” patients.

Now, if you’d like, I’d ask you to close your eyes or soften your gaze. I’m going to describe for you this holding cell and my 36-hour nightmare locked therein. Picture a 20- by 30-foot room – on the left, three eight-by-ten windowless isolation rooms; on the right, a prison-like bathroom shower, beside which is a bullet- and shatter-proof window, behind which sit two med techs, often enjoying a bite or a beverage, monitoring my every move.

Entering my windowless, custard-color holding cell, you’ll see a concrete-like slab, upon which sits a thin, ragged mattress, with menacing physical restraint buckles lining each side. Bolted to the ceiling is a small TV which barely gets two fuzzy station.

If you’d like, you can open your eyes now. Meanwhile, back to my nightmare.

Once led to this suffocating room, I was left alone to sit for hours, silently stewing with my thoughts of hopelessness and suicide. Finally, a junior psychiatrist stopped by to visit briefly, primarily to ask me what psychiatric meds I was taking and to prescribe more and new deadly pharmacological concoctions and to decide to admit me to an incarcerative inpatient psychiatric unit. None was available, and so I was left again, lonely and alone, for the next 36 hours.

The next day and a half was amongst the most terrifying, traumatizing experiences of my life. During this time, I had no visitors, no treatment of any kind, even limited use of my phone to connect with someone, anyone, on the outside. During this 36 hours, my desire to take my own life deepened to the lowest, scariest point of my life.

So in conclusion, I would urge everyone attending and encourage you to ask others to advocate for maximizing community supports and holistic approaches while minimizing and preventing the use of such barbaric practices as emergency involuntary procedures (i.e., seclusion and restraint and involuntary medication), incarcerative inpatient psychiatry, and the overuse, particularly long-term, of psychiatric meds. By community supports and holistic approaches, I’m referring to such things as wellness, as prevention, as local mental health and substance use treatment and progressive treatment programming and – to me, most importantly – peer support: peer support and peer support organizations, Designated Agencies, and crisis response alongside of (or better yet, in place of) law enforcement.

My final point: I urge those of you with mental health conditions to consider becoming an invaluable worker or volunteer in the peer community. Become, for example, a NAMI Vermont peer support group facilitator. Take a job, full-time or part-time, as a peer support worker for such peer organizations as NAMI Vermont, Pathways Vermont, Another Way, or Vermont Psychiatric Survivors. Believe the power of peer. Thank you.

Chris: For me, I had my first experience with mental health crisis right before the pandemic, which was just perfectly timed, and experienced a period in which I stopped sleeping for five days, lost my appetite, experienced what I define and describe as a psychosis and mania. But through that process, I was extremely fortunate to have a lot of supports in my life.

I had friends and family and peers involved in my process from the beginning. And as a result, when traveling to the hospital and heading to the emergency room, I had a peer and a family member with training in intentional peer support there to help redirect me and show me there were other options and other paths that could be taken, and a result of that, I didn’t end up experiencing hospitalization. I did experience some time engaging with psychiatric medication and, again, having connections to peers talking about their experiences with meds and options for getting off of meds.

I’ve been off of psych meds for quite some time now. Now I work as the team lead for Pathways Vermont’s community center in Burlington, providing peer support to folks in all sorts of different ways. So I’m here today advocating for more peer support services and really for an increase to intentional peer support training being offered to more folks as well, as another way to engage with people, to break patterns that, as I see them, can be coercive and having elements of power and control.

But I’ve also heard a lot of talk today about how to end the stigma, and I’d really like to advocate for narratives that we tell about mental health to expand and to see more stories that talk about mental health experiences and challenges and even a crisis that don’t have to be about illness or diagnosis. I want to see us acknowledge the capacity for anyone to get so overwhelmed by the realities of life that their behaviors can look like what someone else might call an illness.

I really can’t emphasize enough how much that has changed my experience, and being able to stay outside of a conversation of diagnosis, of a conversation of “there’s something wrong with me” rather than “there’s something I’m going through that is challenging,” and being able to have that space made for me has made such a huge difference for me to be able to be where I’m at now and be engaging in the ways I get to. And I know that’s not a privilege everyone has, and I don’t take that lightly.

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