At its annual meeting at the Rutland Free Library, the membership of Vermont Psychiatric Survivors elected Keith Molinari, Rodney Nicklaw, and William J. Collins to its board of directors. VPS publishes Counterpoint.
Molinari, Nicklaw, and Collins had served as temporary appointees since earlier in the year, when Walt Wade, VPS’s new executive director, recruited them. Nicklaw and Collins both bring professional backgrounds in community mental health.
While Nicklaw works as a direct service provider at the Counseling Service of Addison County, Collins’s résumé includes former positions at Health Care & Rehabilitation Services of Southeastern Vermont, Rutland Mental Health Services, and Mountainside House, a teen shelter in Ludlow. Molinari, a director of public safety at Vermont State University’s Castleton campus, cited his own “struggles with anxiety and depression” as the basis for his interest in mental health advocacy.
Sara Merrow, Zack Hughes, and Bert Dyer fill out the rest of the VPS board. Merrow, the board president, dedicated the meeting on Oct. 28 to the memory of Thomas Christophre Woods, a former VPS executive director who had passed away in February.
On a happier note, Hughes, the vice president, celebrated VPS’s return to legislative advocacy in Montpelier in 2023 after a period of inactivity.
“We testified on a couple of different bills and blocked one piece of legislation,” Hughes said. “We’re back in business, and we’ll continue to maintain our uniqueness in Vermont by educating others about what their rights are and making sure that everybody is receiving what they need to receive.”
Wade emphasized that VPS could do even more. The organization relies on a grant from the Vermont Department of Mental Health, but it has begun looking for additional private funding that would potentially expand its scope of activities.
“I’ve got staff here that are capable of doing a whole lot more than what they’re doing in a wider range of services,” Wade said. “But I can’t do it because it’s not part of our grant language.”
Wade previously worked as VPS’s peer support outreach coordinator. He became ED in March.
“It’s been a lot of hectic stuff. But,” Wade said, “things are heading in the right direction.”
Tom Tench and Stephanie Kacanich delivered a report from VPS’s staff. Kacanich, a peer advocate, praised her colleagues for their work as patient representatives in hospitals and residential facilities, but she also lamented 2023’s unusually harsh challenges for the organization’s clientele, including a mass eviction in June of homeless Vermonters from state-supported motels.
“When that day came, how many people were out on the street?” Kacanich asked. “How many people did we see out on the street in Burlington, City Hall Park, Rutland, all over the city, struggling? How many friends have we all lost due to addiction? Too many.”
Anne Donahue, who edited Counterpoint for VPS for more than two decades, attended the annual meeting for the first time as a VPS member. She described having recently spent “hundreds of hours” researching the cemetery at the Vermont State Hospital, a longtime personal project.
Donahue used old newspaper articles to find the names of long-forgotten psychiatric patients who had died at the institution between 1891 and 1915. In 1991, a hillside in Waterbury received a plaque to mark their remains, but Donahue has come to believe in rumors of a second burial ground on the asylum’s former grounds and hopes to see it identified and protected.
“To me, it really matters who’s there, because it’s about restoring their dignity and their names,” she said.
Donahue plans to introduce a bill on the subject. As an elected official, she represents Northfield in the Vermont General Assembly.
“I certainly hope that, when the bill comes up in the legislature this year,” she said, “VPS will be there to say, ‘This is really critically important.’”
Molinari expressed a hope that more members would attend the annual meeting in 2024.
“I know you guys would like to see a lot more members here,” he said. “I think COVID took away so much from the organization. I don’t know that for sure. But I know that this is the start of a new beginning. I really do feel that.”