How a new grassroots nonprofit is seeking to combat mental illness on Nantucket.
For nearly seventeen thousand year-round residents, a population which multiplies in the summer months, there are currently fifteen mental health therapists available to provide them with care. With depression, anxiety, addiction and suicide continuing to rise on Nantucket, the need for more year-round mental health professionals has never been greater. Organizations like Fairwinds, Gosnold, NAMI Cape and the Islands, and the Nantucket Cottage Hospital provide vital care, but with limited staff, they can only treat so many of those in need. However, two Nantucket residents believe they have a solution to the shortage of therapists and mental health counselors on the island.
This spring, local yoga instructor Evie-Marie O’Connor and Holly Finigan of the Nantucket blACKbook, launched The Healing Fund, a grassroots scholarship program dedicated to providing annual funding to island residents who are pursuing studies and training in mental, emotional and behavioral health. O’Connor and Finigan believe that by financially supporting local students who are seeking careers in mental health, The Healing Fund will sow the seeds of future caregivers to treat patients on the island. O’Connor knows this firsthand because she counts herself as one of those future caregivers.
“I am currently working on my master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado,” says O’Connor, who enrolled in a three-year program to become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) in Massachusetts after working at Fairwinds Nantucket’s Counseling Center for a year and a half. “Last year, when applying for local scholarships, I realized that there were not any scholarships orientated to fund students studying mental or behavioral health.” O’Connor explains that, “We are in a mental health epidemic on the island and in the country at large. Holly, whose late mother spent years as a social worker, and I recognized there was a need to support local community members, like myself, who want to continue their education and bring these needed services back to Nantucket.”
Together they have held three block parties at Island Kitchen and a live “Chasing Joy” Podcast about holistic mental health at Lemon Press with Georgie Morley. These events have raised $10,000 through small donations and matching gifts that will be directed toward building The Healing Fund. O’Connor will be the first recipient of The Healing Fund scholarship. “While it might not be traditional for the founder to be the first recipient of the scholarship, this fund started by trying to meet an immediate need that I was facing and then grew into a much larger vision for the community as a whole,” O’Connor explains. The next scholarship will be available for application in January 2020 and will continue annually thereafter.
“We are still putting together the criteria for applicants, but we want the scholarship to be open enough for different formats of mental health education,” she explains. “It could be a graduate or undergraduate program, but also a licensure or professional training program.” The essential criteria is that applicants are year-round members of the community committed to bringing their mental health services back to the island.
While creating a sustainable scholarship program is the main objective, O’Connor and Finigan want to make sure The Healing Fund stimulates conversational opportunities around mental health and well-being. “We live in a world where there is so much misunderstanding, judgment and fear around addiction and mental health,” says O’Connor, “we want The Healing Fund to help break the stigma by talking about these things as part of the human experience.” And hopefully, with the help of The Healing Fund, there will be many more people like O’Connor and Finigan to have this important conversation with on Nantucket.