In 1991, as a young boy, Zach Hughes found himself caught up in Vermont’s Foster Care system. His first affiliation with Washington County Mental Health Services (WCMHS) was through our Children, Youth & Family Services Program. In 1998, he turned 21 and transitioned briefly into our Community Support Program (CSP) services. During this time, he was extremely wary of the entire community mental health system; and, WCMHS in particular. He didn’t understand how a designated agency could be an agent for change and advocacy and support him with his daily struggles.
Though he had an extensive support team including; multiple providers, various medical staff, case managers, and clinical supports, he was often angry and felt isolated and misunderstood. As he explained it to me - he saw everything in terms of black and white, an ‘us and them’ mentality ruled his thoughts. His world consisted of the "Reds" and the "Blues", a reference to the old Soviet regime (the Reds) versus the rest of the Western world (the Blues). For Zach, WCMHS was the "Reds" - a "cold war" enemy - not to be trusted. As a child he saw his life as a "fight" against the system.
That mindset began to shift in 2000 when he met Mary Moulton (the Emergency Services Screener’s Program Director at the time) to file a grievance. Mary not only took the time to address his specific complaint, but began meeting with Zach once a month, over coffee, to strategize how WCMHS could better support Zach’s peer community and collaborate with him on his Young Adult Initiative. About this time, he transitioned into Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CCPS) services and became involved in the "Warm Line" - a peer led initiative to help find resources and offer referrals to community members struggling with mental health and housing issues.
The transition to receiving a stipend from WCMHS (peers were paid a small amount to answer the phone line) created mixed feelings for Zach. Was he joining the enemy? Ultimately, this new relationship forced him to reassess his previous thought process about the "system" and led him to "change" his ideas of what "community mental health" really meant. As he found himself referring folks to the Emergency Screeners, collaborating to find housing and consulting with WCMHS clinical staff, he realized that consultation and sharing resources were more effective tools in the recovery process than "fighting" the system.
In 2002, he became co-facilitator of the Peer Line initiative and became an "official" paid employee. As it turned out, having the backing of a large, well-respected agency such as WCMHS was critical to Zach’s personal peer initiatives both in the legislature and out in the community. Some of his peers remain distrustful of the designated agency system, believing that agencies "are still the enemy." His thinking has evolved and he is not as negative or down on folks who may advocate for different peer led models. He thinks that multiple ideas can co-exist. Ironically, Zach now finds himself defending the community system, spreading the message to other state agencies, and advocating for better understanding and collaboration among all the players involved in Vermont’s mental health system of care.
Zach noted, for example, that WCMHS was an early adopter of the client/rehabilitation model. That has had a positive impact on staff and client staff working relationships. It has dramatically reduced fear and misunderstanding, and has educated employees while breaking down stigma.
I asked him about his experience as an employee. As Zach says, "it’s an evolution, it’s not a perfect world, we all have personal struggles and client/staff, like all staff, definitely brush up against policies and protocols that they may not agree with." I asked him for some examples; he shared the difficulty of dual-relationships, the risk inherent in becoming "friends" with clients who are also peers and co-workers, boundaries, when to ask for employee support versus clinical treatment, etc. He said, “but, you know what? The best thing about working at WCMHS is their flexibility.” He feels accepted and heard. “I may not always agree with WCMHS, but I communicate, I do not fight!”
In 2009, Zach made an impassioned speech at WCMHS’ Annual Legislative Breakfast. He was later approached by Mary Moulton and Paul Dupre and asked if he would be willing to join our Board of Directors. I asked him how that felt; he said “it was really cool, and has been very rewarding”. In 2010 he became the only employee on our Board. I asked what that was like, he said, “you get a perspective that you don’t see as an employee or a client. It’s an insider’s view of what goes on at the agency.” I asked him what he brings to his Board role. “I try to offer a neutral view, to be open and hear both sides of an issue."
Also in 2009 he became the facilitator of the Peer Line. In 2012, Leslee Tocci and Laurie Pontbriand became aware that a local program providing "Peer Respite" was no longer able to offer those services. They began working to secure funding to provide a "warm bed" run by peers to support folks who were transitioning in their housing or who needed a brief placement. Maple House opened in early 2013. The idea was simple; provide peer support to folks in crisis or needing temporary housing. I asked Zach about the importance of offering a peer-run bed and whether he and the other client/staff had instant "credibility" as folks who have experienced and navigated the community mental health system. He said, “we had more credibility than I thought we’d have,“ and more surprising to Zach, “we had the respect of staff. We’re a part of something.” Zach is proud that he is now able to join Emergency Screeners at the hospital and sit with guests and potential guests in crisis. Maple House has truly earned the admiration of the hospital, Emergency Screeners, treatment teams, and guests.
This is evident in their ratings. According to the WCMHS client surveys, guest satisfaction rate is over 95%. The guests also reported that all of them, 100%, "received the help they needed" and "were treated with respect." The fledging program projected 25 guests for the first year, and had 31. The program is growing with agency and CSP support. Maple House has the distinction of being the only peer-run initiative located, literally, within a designated mental health agency. This has really made a difference in breaking down the barriers between those "Reds" and "Blues", and because of the "real-life experiences" and empathy of staff they have not had a single incident of violence or aggression. It is a voluntary program, staffed by peers who are genuinely invested in supporting others towards their goals of recovery.
Zach is also the co-chair of the CSP Standing Committee. This brings everything that he represents "full circle." He says, “I’m proud that the perception that I had years ago no longer exists. From the Reds and Blues to collaboration!”
Note: Zachary Hughes wrote a short paper which Susan Loynd combined with an interview of him on 2/27/15.
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