Volunteers in Psychotherapy: New Model in Treating Clients


Are mental illnesses born of biology or are they based upon our traumatic life experiences? Since the question is still being debated by psychiatrists and mental health professionals, then why would anybody want to use their insurance to go to therapy, risk being labeled and having the therapist report it to the third party insurer? And what if, you don’t have insurance and you can’t afford the $150 an hour cost of weekly therapy?

Dr. Richard Shulman, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of the innovative non-profit Volunteers in Psychotherapy, has the answer.

Volunteers in Psychotherapy, a Connecticut-based non-profit around for 20 years this summer nonprofit that has been serving people for 20 years now, was established by Dr. Richard Shulman as an innovative solution to help people access therapy services. All people have to do in exchange for free therapy is volunteer at a local non-profit or government agency in exchange for free therapy. They even get extra credit for donating blood or hair to organizations such as the American Red Cross and Locks of Love. So far, over 650 individuals and families have been served. These people gave more than 30,000 hours of volunteer work and earned 7,500 therapy sessions.

“If you really listen to the hints people make in therapy, wittingly and unwittingly, people are often hinting at things that are troubling and confusing. All they really need to talk about that is privacy. Increasingly, the field was acting as though there were research to show that these were biological disorders. If you think of it that way, you’re not looking for what people may be hinting at,” said Shulman. “Managed care also undermines privacy where people can broach subjects confusing and frightening to them.”

The volunteer work is part of the therapy. People choose their volunteer work based on their interests. If they are shy, they might help an environmental organization, clean trails. “People who may be isolated rub elbows with coworkers at a nonprofit.”

Grants from community foundations and agencies support VIP’s work. They have had 123 grants from 39 charitable foundations that give generously as well as over 200 individual donors. This is used to help pay therapists $55 per client per session among their other expenses like running their small office.

The model is “a person giving of themselves and symbolically paying by doing good in the community,” said Shulman.

Shulman does not believe that mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances. “People who are upset, confused, overwhelmed are presumed “ill”—not emotionally distressed but medically sick,” he wrote in an op-ed to the Connecticut Mirror in 2014.

For 20 years, Shulman served on an Institutional Review Board at Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living where he served as a clinical psychologist. Institutional Review Boards are in place to ensure patients are told the truth about their medical or psychiatric conditions. Giving patients the ability of accurate informed consent allows them to know and weigh the risks and benefits of their options. Researchers, whether or not they are funded by drug companies and government agencies, are required to submit their research to the review board. “These scientists repeatedly admit that the conditions we mislabel “psychiatric illnesses” are simply not documented to be diseases of the body—despite decades of attempts to verify biomarkers, specific lesions or physical/chemical malfunctions that might cause these “conditions”,” Shulman wrote in the same Connecticut Mirror op-ed.

“The key is to know a person as a human being, what has happened in their life, what makes them tick,” he said.

People seeking therapy from VIP complete four hours of volunteer work at the non-profit of their choice. They ask the non-profit for a letter stating their hours, signed and made out to them…or they make a copy of their schedule or time-log. They present this letter documentation as proof to VIP for therapy services.  This way no one at the non-profit knows what the letter is used for—the stigma of therapy is avoided.

Shulman said that [in 2016] one sign of success in recent years was that their clients began reporting that they had gotten jobs either from their volunteer work or in other states. Many moved on from therapy leaving room for new clients.

“We treat people as equals. We don’t want to give something away for free. It’s an exchange,” Shulman said.

Recently after media attention, over 100 psychotherapists from other communities around the United States have contacted VIP about starting programs like it in their communities. On their web site, they have information about their export initiative which helps groups that apply to set up a similar program outside of Connecticut. So far, programs have been started in Gainsville, Florida, Bellingham, Washington, and Waterville Maine among others. “The funding is there to help people set up more non-profits like VIP,” said Shulman. VIP will consult with others looking to spread their work to other areas.

VIP is expanding and is seeking new psychologists to work with them. They are also looking for newer computer equipment and letter-sized paper to run their small office in West Hartford Center. If you would like to donate your time or make a donation, please get in touch with them.

To contact VIP about seeking therapy, setting up a non-profit like it in your area, or making a donation, call (860) 233-5115 or visit www.ctvip.org.

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