Legislator-Advocate Becca Balint Shares Advice on Coping with Triggers

At Mental Health Advocacy Day, an annual event for seven years now, people living with mental health challenges get to tell their stories to people who have the power to make a difference. Becca Balint fits both categories.

As President Pro Tem of the Vermont Senate, Sen. Balint sits at the nexus of legislative power in the state. As a human being, she is a living example of someone who has thrived despite lifelong challenges with anxiety disorder and depression. In a moving keynote address, Sen. Balint shared her personal struggles going back to childhood, and how she copes with the “daily triggers” that arise as an outspoken gay woman in the public eye.

“I have lived with anxiety and depression my entire adult life, and my entire childhood as well,” Sen. Balint said, speaking to the assembled participants. “Like so many of you and the folks you love, I have had to figure out systems of support and tools to help me navigate through the rough times.” 

Pandemic Bright Spot

While acknowledging the “real doozy” the pandemic has been from a mental health perspective, she pointed to one bright spot. “It has opened the doors to more candid conversations about mental health and mental illness and developmental disabilities. It seems like all of a sudden more Americans feel more comfortable sharing their mental health challenges,” she said. “It’s a welcome change to see more openness about something we all know is a part of life. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to ignore or hide. It’s just simply a part of life.”

“This new ability to communicate honestly about what is happening is cause for hope. Because there is no path to recovery without acknowledging there’s something you’re trying to recover from.”

~ Becca Balint (D, Windham), President Pro Tem, Vermont Senate

Moving beyond stigma requires leaving behind “the faulty thinking that mental health and physical health are two different things,” she said. “We can change the impact of stigma and  misunderstanding through connection, but it takes being vulnerable and being our true selves in order to make that deep connection with others. And I think most of us know that that can be very scary.“

Coping with Hate Mail

Sen. Balint said being in the public eye means that everything she says, does, or posts makes her vulnerable to attacks. These feed her own tendencies toward anxiety and depression. “I think some people think that if you’re a public official you don’t have to deal with these things, or you somehow overcome them. You don’t. At least I don’t. I have just learned how to dance with them.”

Take hate mail for example. Sen. Balint gets it. Especially now that she’s running for Vermont’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She feels the reaction in her body. It used to shut her down, she said, making her feel broke,r paralyzed, or suffocating. Now she has a specific plan of action.

“Now I can recognize the reaction and instead of shutting down, I get curious. Why am I feeling this? What am I feeling? I very clearly name these things and I say them out loud. Something about naming it helps me to figure it out what to do next. Then I ask, what do I need right now? Sometimes I put my hand on my chest and just breathe. Sometimes I head out the door of the Statehouse to get fresh air and a different perspective. Whatever I decide to do in that moment is about self-care and not about ruminating.”

She has found guidance in Pema Chodron’s teachings on becoming a “warrior for compassion.” Self-care, she said, “has to start with showing deep compassion for yourself.” Then you can extend it to others. 

“The warrior spirit requires courage to see what scares you and not run away. Instead of hardening, to just let it be. It’s a willingness to stay in the discomfort.”

~ Becca Balint, (D, Windham), President Pro Tem, Vermont Senate

Balint’s Coping Practices 

In her keynote address, Sen. Balint shared three practices that guide how she deals with anxiety and pressures in daily life. 

  1. Just like me. She learned this from Pema Chodron. When someone triggers her, she tries to sit with it and say: “Just like me, that person wants to be loved. Just like me, that person wants to feel their pain alleviated.” And so on. “Something about that makes me feel less stressed,” she said.
  2. Recognize the good. Take the time to see and acknowledge the good in others. Say thank you. “The act of reflecting back moments of kindness helps me feel rooted in my own kindnesses to others.”
  3. Where’s the evidence? When something goes wrong, we can find ourselves quickly spiraling downward into self-loathing. “In those moments I try to stop myself, and ask: Where is the evidence that this story you’re telling is not true? Where have you showed up really together? When were you in the flow of your work?” Find the evidence for the positive. Disprove the negative self-talk.

“All of us want permission to be complete and whole persons,” she said in response to a question from a livestream participant. “TMI [too much information]  is outdated thinking when it comes to mental health. Don’t let anyone make you feel small for being authentic.”

Statehouse Ritual Gone Virtual

Nearly 300 advocacy day registrants gathered via Zoom to hear how state leaders are addressing the mental health crisis. In turn, state leaders heard what it’s like for people facing mental health challenges, their families, and the front-line workers caring for them. NAMI Vermont is the lead organizer of the day, in partnership with Vermont Care Partners, Recovery Vermont, and nearly 40 mental health agencies and organizations from across Vermont.

The agenda of morning speakers read like a who’s who of Vermont politics. Governor Phil Scott opened the formal remarks with brief comments acknowledging the magnitude of the mental health crisis. He stopped short of repeating his recent budget-address call for increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rate for mental health conditions. Advocates say this is an important step toward mental health providers being paid at parity with other healthcare providers. 

Vermont Care Partners co-director Julie Tessler said VCP, a network of 16 community mental health agencies, is asking for a 10% Medicaid rate increase. That is the minimum needed “to support our workforce in order to meet the growing need for mental health, developmental disability, and substance use disorder services,” she said. The inability to attract and retain workers has led to widespread shortages across the mental health system. High workforce vacancy rates have put untenable pressure on remaining staff.

Pandemic Coping through Helping Others

U. S. Congressman Peter Welch joined the session to laud his constituents for persevering in the face of ongoing hardship. “It’s been very, very tough for all of us to keep going. Vermonters have a real sense of obligation and desire to help keep their neighbors safe.”

Lt. Gov Molly Gray outlined her own agenda for reversing the trend of Vermont’s “underfunded and under-supported” mental health system. After touring community-based mental health agencies across the state, Gray has called for a five-point plan that centers on a long-term sustainable budget for mental health agencies. 

Other legislative and administrative-branch speakers included Secretary of Human Services Jenney Samuelson, Commissioner of Mental Health Emily Hawes, Speaker of the Vermont House Jill Krowinski, Vermont Representative Bill Lippert, Vermont Senator Ginny Lyons, and Vermont Senator Jane Kitchell. 

In the afternoon session, it was the people’s turn to tell their stories. From across the state, people who are living with sometimes devastating mental health challenges shared what it’s been like for them. People like Marie Lennon, who’s been in the mental health system since she was 23. She has PTSD after leaving an “extremely abusive” husband who then showed up with a vengeance and a gun at her mother’s door, where she had fled to. People like Louis Gaudette, who thought alcohol was the only way he could release anger, but is now in recovery and helping other people get their lives back in order. And people like Alexis Kyriak, who has schizophrenia. She spent 20 years in a psychiatric hospital before finally being released in the 1970s. She now makes beautiful paintings and finds meaning through creative expression and sharing her story. 

Learn More and Find Resources

Watch the video from Mental Health Advocacy Day 2022. (Link will go live once the recording is available from NAMI Vermont.)

Watch “A Seat at the Table,” a panel discussion featuring local pediatric mental health providers and young women with lived experience. The event, hosted by Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, explored key issues surrounding the current mental health crisis in Vermont.

Visit the COVIDSupportVT.org website for free virtual workshops, resources for managing stress, and self-help resources.

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at www.COVIDSupportVT.org.

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the COVIDSupportVT.org website, plus Multilingual Resources.

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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