Headrest marks 50 years helping people with mental health, substance use issuesClick here to view original web page at www.vnews.com
It started because people who were struggling 50 years ago needed someone to talk to.
From that need sprouted a grassroots group, which became known as Headrest, turned into one of the Upper Valley’s most well-known nonprofit organizations, where thousands of people experiencing mental health crises and substance use disorders found solace.
“Twenty-four/seven, they could have someone who would listen to them — not fix them — and then help them make decisions that would help them get out of the space they were in,” said Donlon Wade, one of the organization’s founders. “Sometimes we were planting the seed, and sometimes we made an incredible difference with just a phone call.”
In the half-century since, the organization has undergone a number of changes, including expanding its drug and alcohol treatment programs, working with area businesses to help those in recovery find employment and becoming part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network.
But at its core, “the mission of Headrest has never changed,” said Cameron Ford, who has served as executive director for four years. “The idea is we help people who are in crisis.”
One of those people is Karl Coleman, who arrived at Headrest’s “low-intensity” residential program in February 2019 after completing a program at a 30-day residential facility. “Treatment didn’t ever really work out too well for me, so I really took a leap of faith,” Coleman, 32, said about attending the 90-day program at Headrest.
After he had spent a couple of weeks at the Church Street building in downtown Lebanon, Lori Bartlett, vocational employment specialist in Headrest’s Opportunities for Work program, started talking to him about building a resume and applying for jobs.
“I hadn’t worked in quite some time and every job that I did have, I just kind of threw away. It seemed like a daunting task for me to find a job,” Coleman said. “She was batting for me the whole time and it was just life-changing for me.”
He washed windows in a seasonal job. Then, about a year ago, Coleman started working at Tractor Supply. Now, he is an assistant manager.
“I just use the tools Headrest taught me. To always push through and not give up on something that I want,” Coleman said. “There is a better life on the other side of fear.”
In the summer of 1970, Hill Anderson, a member of the Dartmouth Class of 1970, proposed starting a hotline for students who were struggling. Wade, who was living near campus and working a construction job at the time, signed on to help. The organization was named Headrest after volunteer Tamar Smith leaned her head back on a car seat while returning from a trip to the University of New Hampshire to learn about a hotline that was starting there.
The volunteer group also received advice from Dartmouth’s Psychiatry Department and was given space in the basement of a college building.
When the hotline went live in January 1971, its organizers thought it would primarily serve Dartmouth students who were struggling, or maybe coming off bad trips from LSD.
“It led to the discovery of needs that weren’t being met by the medical, mental health system,” said Jim Rubens, who was with Headrest in its earliest days before leaving the organization and returning to chair the board in the 1980s.
Young people who were using drugs were reluctant to go to a medical facility because they were afraid of the impact that their experimentation would have on their futures.
“Even if you’re not doing anything illegal, the impression one gets of mental health services at the time is very institutional. The risk of being locked up, of being quote-unquote ‘cared for by institutions,’ where scenes come to the mind like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” said Rubens, a former Republican state senator from Etna. “We wanted a place where people could get help, risk-free, immediately, from people who care. Not an institution.”
While the group had a decent amount of support from Dartmouth, Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital and the greater Upper Valley community, others dismissed the young people — and their long hair — who were leading Headrest.
“They thought it was a bunch of drug-crazed hippies,” said Wade, who spent 31 years at Headrest before leaving to form a private practice. “It wasn’t.”
The term “counter-culture” was considered almost derogatory, but the methods they used — identifying a community need and pulling a group of volunteers together to address it — prevail today.
“It’s a way of organizing community and human relationships now deemed elemental to healthy societies,” Rubens said.
After a year at Dartmouth, Headrest moved to Bank Street in Lebanon. That set off a period where the organization moved seven times in seven years, sometimes due to neighbors who objected to the clients who came to Headrest, Wade said. At the time, it also served as a place for people who were detoxing or had nowhere else to go. In 1978, Wade’s father purchased a home at 14 Church St. for Headrest for $27,000. The organization paid the mortgage, with the agreement that it would eventually purchase the home, which Headrest did.
The nonprofit now also has its administrative offices and some outpatient services at a building on the campus of Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon.
When Veronica Colby started answering calls at Headrest in the mid-1980s, the hotline was located in the kitchen in the home on Bank Street. She worked full time for a phone company in White River Junction during the day and worked nights at Headrest to help her daughters pay for college. She was immediately struck by the way the staff treated people who were in crisis.
“There was something about the way they interacted with the clients, the respect and so forth that they showed them,” said Colby, who spent 15 years at Headrest. It was something she hadn’t witnessed before. “That was a real eye-opener for me.”
Colby worked alongside Gina Capossela, who joined Headrest in 1988. During her dozen years there, Capossela took calls on the hotline and helped establish suicide prevention programs in area school districts. The calls would run the gamut from people contemplating suicide, survivors of domestic violence and loved ones who were concerned about the mental health of a family member. The night hours were especially busy for the hotline because callers needed someone to talk to when their family and friends were asleep.
“There really was nothing else,” Capossela said, adding that health care providers at emergency rooms did not necessarily have time to spend hours on the phone with someone who was in crisis. “We were the people who woke up at 2 a.m. and talked two, three hours, where we were talking someone out of committing suicide.”
Headrest’s current hotline manager, Al Carbonneau, who has worked at Headrest on and off since 2002, said he was drawn to the work because he wanted to help people who are in crisis.
“It can be draining at times, but every once in a while you hear from someone about what a difference you’ve made in their lives or they call and thank the hotline because they’re still alive,” he said.
While the nature of the calls has generally stayed the same throughout the years, Carbonneau said since the COVID-19 pandemic began they’ve received more calls from young people experiencing anxiety or depression.
The prevention part of the hotline is key: It’s helping people before they’re on the verge of attempting suicide.
“When people call, whether we believe if it’s a crisis or not, they believe it’s a crisis, and that’s what we have to remember. We have to meet them where they’re at,” Carbonneau said. “It’s more about getting them to calm down and help them figure out how to get through what they’re going through.”
Funding a growing nonprofit
In the early years, those who volunteered and worked for Headrest took on numerous roles: They went out of state to receive training in mental health and drug counseling. They became fundraisers and grant writers. Wade gave presentations in front of town boards where he cited the number of residents Headrest assisted while asking for funding. When money was tight, community members stepped up to contribute financially and volunteer.
“We learned that there’s a lot of really incredible people in the community who wanted to give their energy,” Wade said. “That was a gift. It became my community.”
When Mike Cryans became executive director of Headrest in 2004, he identified funding as its biggest challenge.
“Early on, I found out pretty quickly that money was the toughest part,” said Cryans, who was a banker by trade. “I used to jokingly say if I can find the money, there’s plenty of people who could do good work there.”
During Cryans’ time at Headrest, the organization worked with the Grafton County’s drug court, which brought in additional funding, as did block grants from the state. Fundraisers like the annual Rail Trail Ramble also helped. But one of the biggest changes was when New Hampshire expanded Medicaid in 2014, said Laurie Harding, a member of the Headrest board. That allowed Headrest to bill for substance use disorder treatment and “become a little more of an accepted part of the health care system instead of an outlier,” she said. Another change was the ability to prescribe medication-assisted treatment to people with substance use disorder.
Today, Headrest has a $2.2 million budget, around 25 employees and is home to both residential and outpatient treatment programs, along with other programs helping people with recovery, employment or regaining a driver’s license after a DWI conviction, part of a continuum of care for its clients.
It also continues to operate its 24/7 crisis-suicide hotline, although now it’s staffed by paid employees instead of volunteers.
Those who were with Headrest from the earliest days might not have been able to project its longevity, but they knew they were building a place where people from all walks of life can find others who will listen and help them without judgment.
Wade is pleased how the group he helped establish has grown, but he also said the needs are great. “The deficits, there’s just not enough of Headrests around,” Wade said.
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3221.