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Windsor Group Offers Support for ‘Mental Wellness’

Windsor — To some extent, everyone struggles to be of sound mind.

We all get sad. We all get frustrated, angry or upset. But, for some people, maintaining “mental wellness” is a bit more of a challenge and setbacks can steer their lives into a dangerous direction.

A new group in Windsor is reaching out to those people to help get them back on a healthy path.

“We feel isolated. We feel alone and if we can create an entity that can address those issues in a fun way, this is something that can really work,” said Rob Ritter, who is helping to organize the nascent effort. “It is something that could take off.”

Tentatively called “Windsor Connections,” the group offers peer support to anyone who wants help improving mental health, overcoming substance abuse problems or other issues related to their overall health.

The four-month old initiative takes a fluid approach to its mission. It is not a prescriptive program with a structured format, like the “seven steps.” In some ways, it is easier to describe what it is not, said George Nostrand, of the education and advocacy organization Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, or VPS. It is not Alcoholics Anonymous or Debtors Anonymous. It is not Weight Watchers.

Supported by VPS, Windsor Connections strives to be a kind of egalitarian support group designed by and for people in Windsor.

“Instead of running the group for people, what (VPS) is trying to do is give them the training and support to develop a group that works for them,” Nostrand said.

The approach at Windsor Connections is similar to a nationally recognized recovery model known as the Wellness Recovery Action Plan, or WRAP. Participants in WRAP are encouraged to manage their own recovery and mental health in a way that is comfortable to them. They develop a “wellness toolbox” that helps them focus on their strengths while learning to identify the things that trigger setbacks in their mental wellbeing. Nostrand has been trained as a WRAP facilitator.

The WRAP model works well, Nostrand said, but it doesn’t always meet a person’s needs for long term, sustained support in the communities.

“What we found is that, after (WRAP), they were let loose in the world without support,” he said. “The challenges were actually using their plan that they developed and feeling like they had support and connections.”

Windsor Connections is attempting to offer that sustained support, Nostrand said.

Since June, an average group size of a half-dozen people have attended weekly meetings to discuss their concerns, collect useful information from each other even as they develop a organizational structure for the group. They are “building the airplane in the air,” Nostrand said, even as they try to help people manage real life problems.

Over the course of an hour and a half, a group facilitator, which rotates every meeting, will guide everyone through an agenda that includes items for “education,” “support” and “wellness tools,” among other things. Participants aren’t forced to share anything personal, but are encouraged to talk openly about something they’ve been struggling with.

Perhaps someone is having financial problems and looking for a job, Ritter said. Another person in the group might share their experience with financial issues, or even provide a lead on a job.

“My big thing is, if someone needs a job ... I can say, I know who you should call,” Ritter said. “Everyone, especially when they’re going through a hard period, needs a leg up.”

Similar community support groups have been developed around the state, including St. Albans, Montpelier, Rutland, Bennington and Brattleboro. The Windsor Connections group is one of the newest, and both Ritter and Nostrand have been reaching out to hospitals and other organizations around the Upper Valley to find people who might be looking for help.

Often, people experiencing a mental health crisis end up in hospital emergency rooms. They get treated there, but need additional help after they are discharged.

Mt. Ascutney Hospital is among the organizations that has been working with Windsor Connections, referring patients who might benefit from the more long-term support.

“It’s something we feel is going to be a significant resource for the community,” said Jill Lord, director of patient care services at Mt. Ascutney.

One challenge, Lord said, is convincing people to join a group, an uncomfortable prospect for those struggling with personal problems. But a person doesn’t have to be confronting a major crisis to benefit, she said. The group has something to offer people of different income levels, of different life experiences.

“Anybody that is seeking mental wellness,” she said. “People that want to make a difference in their lives, decreasing stress, increasing strength. Decreasing hopelessness and increasing hope.”

For more information, contact Nostrand at (802) 282-2267 or Ritter at (603) 359-7987.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.