Interview with Mental Health Initiative Director, Steven Berbeco

Continuing the nonprofit interview series from this summer, CGVT’s Fall intern Sonja Paulson had the opportunity to speak with Steven Berbeco about United Way Northwest Vermont’s Mental Health Initiative. The Mental Health Initiative was created to elevate the voices of direct providers of mental health services, Vermonters with lived experience, and organizations and alliances focused on mental health and substance misuse.

The initiative is working to align existing mental health resources, identify gaps in the system of care, and create a shared agenda and action items for our next steps.

Through extensive conversations with community partners, United Way NWVT has identified three initial priorities for the Mental Health Initiative to focus on:

  • Addressing Vermont’s critical labor shortage of mental health providers;
  • Strengthening and aligning resources for suicide prevention; and
  • Responding to the acute rise in youth mental health needs.

The Mental Health Initiative’s role is to work alongside our service partners on the ground, those with lived experience navigating mental health services, and policymakers to break down barriers to the systems change we need to promote better mental health and ensure community members who want it have timely access to effective mental health services.

Learn more about the initiative from our conversation:

Sonja: Steven, could you introduce yourself, share about how you landed in Vermont, and a little bit about what the Mental Health Initiative is?

Steven: I’m Steven Berbeco, the Director of the Mental Health Initiative which is a collective impact model of about a hundred participants from about a hundred organizations. Together we are working to strengthen our community access to effective and timely mental health services. I’m recent to Vermont compared to a lot of people, my family moved here just before the pandemic — we moved from the Southwest and really found our community here. I am really excited to be apart of United Way of Northwest Vermont, I joined the organization at the beginning of the calendar year at the start of 2021. With the Mental Health Initiative, it’s been growing very quickly and I’m excited by the forward momentum.

Sonja: Thank you. To dive a little deeper, what was the driving force into creating this initiative?

Steven: Mental health has been a priority of United Way of Northwest Vermont going back decades. And more recently, maybe five or six years ago, our community partners started to lift up mental health as a growing, urgent priority. Certainly during the pandemic it has reached new proportions and now sits at the top of the list of most of our, if not all, of our community partners,  including direct care providers and also other social service organizations. In response United Way of Northwest Vermont started a Mental Health Initiative bringing together those voices from direct care, lived experience and also representation from schools from early childhood education, higher education, local government, state government, recovery, housing, transportation, religious groups, civic groups — a lot of different sectors because mental health really affects so many of us. I would say pretty much all of us here in Vermont, directly or indirectly have been impacted. If we’re going to find solutions that work for all of us, we need to have as many of us as possible at the table making sure we’re solving a system change that will help all of us.

Sonja: Has the workforce shortage impacted the work that you all do in how you are able to reach out to organizations?

Steven: I feel like most of us are aware that there are not enough mental health professionals here in Vermont. We know that from personal experience; trying to find a therapist or hearing about friends and family members who try to find someone and end up on a waiting list. The designated mental health agencies across the state have hundreds of vacancies and those vacancies translate into positions that aren’t available to help our communities. We’re looking at what sort of solutions can help with this workforce shortage across the state. How can we lean into the strengths that we have and how we can help our neighbors help each other and build out our strengths to support each other.

Sonja: For solutions to the workers shortage, are there any routes you have taken? Whether that be outsourcing workers from surrounding states or making mental health training more accessible, what solutions have you pinpointed? 

Steven: All of those and more. We have more than a hundred participants who have self selected into our action items. Each action team is aligned with our three priorities in the Mental Health Initiative. Those include workforce development— making sure the right people are in the right place at the right time. Suicide prevention— our numbers in Vermont have been trending the wrong way for over the decade and the pandemic has not done us any favors. Youth mental health— with a broad view of youth, from birth to early adulthood. Finding solutions for one age group and ignoring the others doesn’t help us as a community. I’m really excited to say that our three action teams have several projects now underway, a few projects already completed. In our meetings we come up with other ideas, new ideas. Some of those turn into projects that we pick up and run with and other ideas turn into ideas that we can hand to one of our community partners because they’re better positioned to take that idea forward and support our communities that way.

Sonja: I’d love to hear about the projects you have completed if you could go a little more into them.

Steven: Some of them are financial and logistical support for a recent Mental Health Summit in the City of Burlington, supporting the annual Vermont Suicide Prevention Symposium and the Pride event last summer in Burlington. Some other projects that we’ve completed include the Mental Health Toolkit created together with our colleagues from Working Bridges, an extraordinary program in United Way. That toolkit is a PDF which includes resources, tips, suggestions, and best practices to help employers in workplaces create more inclusive and supportive places for all of us. I’m really excited that the PDF has been downloaded close to 1000 times already, and its been published just a week ago. There is very strong response, I think that’s an indication that it really meets a need that we’re all feeling, for more information, especially information that’s practical and can really help us help each other.

Sonja: With all these projects that you have done so far and are looking to do, do you have a favorite?

Steven: For me, it’s just really exciting bringing people together and having a part in that. To build a structure that supports positive sharing of information and mutual support. I love being a part of that, I feel that the backbone team for the Mental Health Initiative really provides a lot of that logistical and coordination support to help participants meet each other. It becomes really difficult, even with online meetings and flexible schedules, to find time to come together. I’m glad that we’re really taking steps to prioritize that. Often times we have more than one meeting with the same agenda, different days and different times, so that participants who are incredibly busy are able to have more than one shot at coming together, hearing the same information. It’s on us to coordinate the conversations so that something that comes up in one meeting is shared with the other meetings so that we’re all moving together in the same direction, at the same speed.

Sonja: How can your current and future participants, as well as Common Good Vermont, help support the Mental Health Initiative?

Steven: I’d have to say that one of the strengths of the Mental Health Initiative is that there is such broad participation from some of our largest organizations to individual, one person shops. Recognizing that we all bring a strength, in some cases many strengths, to the conversations and to the effort, and that sort of network of networks. Common Good Vermont is a part of that, making sure that our nonprofit organizations around the state understand that they’re not the only ones that are facing mental health challenges and that they can help be part of the solution, that it’s going to take all of us not just the mental health professionals but really all of us working together to help solve our communities problems.

Access the Mental Health Toolkit here.

Learn more

Steven Berbeco, Director of Mental Health Initiative

I believe that our greatest impact comes from sustained and committed work to validate and empower the voices of the community. While mental health has always been a priority of United Way of Northwest Vermont, the current pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our system of care and created greater need among our children, youth, and adults. These challenges can be opportunities for innovation, and my job is to facilitate stakeholder collaborations that ignite that innovation. Through hard work, we can advance well-being for Vermonters and create effective change.

I serve on several boards for my local community, including the Winooski School Board, and my work previously has included leadership in state, federal, and tribal education and social services. As superintendent for geographically isolated schools on a Native American reservation, I increased the graduation rate and reduced instances of youth self-harm and pregnancy. I earned a doctorate in education from Boston University and I am currently a graduate student in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Northern Vermont University.

My greatest love is for my family and my community, which is like a larger family for us. We love exploring in the woods, with my wife leading the search for hard-to-find mushrooms and our two children collecting as many rocks and leaves as can fit in their pockets.