Since the COVID-19 pandemic increased social isolation and various mental health struggles in turn, the Waitsfield-based organization Hannah’s House has been running a series of peer support groups. Four programs are currently in the mix. 



Their longest-running program, now in its third year, is a weekly “Walk and Talk.” Hosted and organized by Hannah’s House board member Susan McKnight, Group members meet in the parking lot behind Neck of the Woods on Monday mornings and walk the nearby dirt roads for about an hour. With substantial snow, attendees slip into snowshoes and walk behind the Waitsfield United Church of Christ. 

Hannah’s House executive director Chrissy Rivers said that community members are fond of this program, which is safe, free, moderately easy and based outdoors. “We try to create access so that everyone can do these things,” she said. 


Rivers said that the need for mental health services in The Valley surged during the pandemic and in its aftermath. Hannah’s House didn’t have enough therapists on staff to address the needs of everyone who called in and they accrued a long wait-list for private therapy work. “We were realizing that the population around us was suffering immensely – especially with anxiety,” she said. 

The staff thought about how they could support the community immediately, while also trying to recruit and hire additional staff. They came up with the idea of hosting a series of support groups. “We thought, let’s just try it,” Rivers said. 

Another well-attended program that’s been running for about three years is a series of virtual group meet-ups with Suzy Blais of Green Mountain Conscious Parenting. She facilitates sessions for parents about becoming more attuned and connected to their children – with a recent focus on navigating anxiety. 

“Silver Circles” is a newer program for local seniors that meets on Thursday afternoons at Mad River Valley Senior Center in Waitsfield. Facilitated by local therapist Lynda Mischler, it offers conversation, simple art projects, snacks, and tea. The organization Free Wheelin’ provides transportation and the Mad River Valley Rotary sponsors it. Rivers said they offered this group two years ago with another local therapist who has since retired. 

A group of those who identify as parents and caregivers is also newer, meeting on the last Tuesday of each month at the Mad River Valley Health Center in Waitsfield. Members can attend in-person or online, with the goal being to support those in caretaking roles and to normalize their daily realities. 




Rivers said that Hannah’s House, which was founded in 2010 in order to increase access to mental health care in the Mad River Valley, has always provided education for the community – bringing in authors in to speak, or inviting specialists to host workshops. But these peer support groups are newer. 

Their overall purpose, Rivers said, is to combat social isolation. A mountain of research shows that little to no social support has been linked to increased risks of anxiety, depression, addiction, suicidality, self-harm, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and a host of other health conditions. 

Support groups that address mental health-related experiences were widely popularized in the 1970s, according to author and therapist Sally Clay, in her 2005 book “On Our Own, Together: Peer Programs for People with Mental Illness.” While many of these groups were facilitated by counselors and other mental health professionals, a good deal of them were organized by those with lived experiences of mainstream mental health services. Groups essentially formed in reaction to many of those services – troubled by practices of involuntary commitment, seclusion, and restraint, and forced medication regimens. 

Many support groups remained autonomous over the years, but most, according to Clay, developed partnerships with mainstream service providers. Institutions and organizations began hosting them more frequently, recognizing the therapeutic value of being with others through illness, disability, and other struggles – even finding that hosting these groups could reduce the need for expensive clinical care and hospitalization. 


In all forms that these support groups have taken over the decades, critical to their ethos is the validation of group members’ experiences, the development of trusting relationships, and social connection more generally. 

Rivers said that while the Hannah’s House groups are different than private-practice therapy, they are still aligned with mental health care. “This is something that’s more proactive. It’s providing a space to break the isolation of the winter, and to foster some communication because some of the folks who come to these groups live alone, and don’t have transportation, and don’t talk to many people. We know that having sense of community is a huge protective factor with mental health.” 

“We still fight the stigma with mental health care – that’s a constant thing,” she said. “And how you word it, and how you present it, really does impact how people perceive it, and whether they think that they should go. We don’t have to call this a ‘mental health group,’ but we know underneath that all humans just really need this connection.”