Brattleboro, a former mill town turned hippie enclave in far southern Vermont, is shot through with rivers, surrounded by green slopes, and views for days. You can see New Hampshire’s Wantastiquet Mountain from downtown, just over the bridge that connects the neighboring states, and the drive to Massachusetts is only 10 minutes. As a New Englander, this is a welcome respite from Dallas summer and a tonic for my homesickness – in other words, an amazing setting for a Maguire Public Service project. Moreover, as a medical anthropology Ph.D. student focused on mental health alternatives (and someone with personal and professional experience in the mental health system), it’s an ideal place to be. Brattleboro is home to a unique, emerging support option, and one that I am fortunate to be working with this summer.

Whetstone Brook running through downtown Brattleboro with Wantastiquet Mountain in the background

The Hive came out of a 2014 community dialogue about increasing local access to peer support (meaning mutual relationships that are non-professional, and are based on lived experience rather than education). It has since grown into a grassroots mutual support network that is free and volunteer-run, dedicated to “creating spaces and infrastructures for people to support each other to survive and thrive.”

It has no financial stakeholders or parent organizations. And while it is kept running by an open group of participants known as “worker bees,” larger decisions are made collectively with input from its roughly 30 community members.

The Hive offers weekly open hours, mutual support groups, study groups, and monthly gatherings/potlucks at either a local social justice center or its own dedicated studio space downtown. Cells (smaller, autonomous support groups) and the Buzzline (an online platform for ad-hoc social networking around any mutual aid requests) give The Hive the flexibility to facilitate support wherever and whenever needed. It also offers a range of workshops and events, recent examples being “Alternatives to Calling the Police,” “Self-Advocacy: Using the System to Your Advantage,” and “Beliefs, Delusions, and Stories: What’s the Difference and How Do They Serve Us?”.

The Hive does not have “staff” or “clients”. It is not “treatment,” nor is it explicitly a response to treatment. It is not even about “mental health” per se. Rather, by not limiting itself to the often pathologizing and individualizing language of mental health (or to community members who have experienced treatment), it allows for connections and ways of viewing life experiences that are social, political, or simply human in nature (for example, one of its early mutual support groups, “Humans Anonymous”). The Hive functions as a complement or alternative to a range of dominant systems and structures as defined by its members – from psychiatry and education to heteronormativity and capitalism – that, while beneficial for some, are insufficient or oppressive for others. Importantly, it offers open-minded, non-coercive support and a space for challenging conversations, all in the context of a constantly-evolving, intentional community.

A flier for the Hive on a community bulletin board

In my first couple of weeks here, I met with the “worker bees” to figure out a list of tasks to work on over the summer. I produced and distributed fliers for the Hive’s potluck, which featured local artist Pamela Spiro Wagner’s “Going Sane,” a multimedia account of how she experienced horrific abuse and destructive labelling in psychiatric hospitals and emerged whole.

I’ve also been working with two worker bees who are developing a training on social justice and mental health, doing research for a timeline on the history of resistance to psychiatry by current/former users of services– efforts otherwise known as the c/s/x movement (consumer/survivor/ex-patient, a name reflecting the different ways that people identify themselves in relation to mental health treatment).

I spent time over the last two weeks collecting information on grants that might help The Hive expand its offerings, putting up fliers for the network around town, and doing outreach to local colleges, drop-in centers, and other like-minded organizations. Most enjoyably, I’ve been attending events and activities and getting to know the folks who make up this unique community.

I’ll post more about these projects (and others) as they progress. In the meantime, check out the Hive’s website by clicking this link, or shoot me an e-mail with any questions!