October 6, 2022

Therapy Hits the Road

Local Social Worker Launches Care-O-Van
By Jillian Manning | Feb. 26, 2022

Back in November of 2021, Northern Express reported on the growing mental health crisis in northern Michigan. From the stress of the pandemic to bullying on social media, a variety of factors are causing the need for mental health services to skyrocket among children and adults. Meanwhile, providers are so busy, they sometimes have to turn patients away or put them on a waiting list.

Our region is not alone in facing these issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared a study last March reporting that between August 2020 and February 2021, 41.5 percent of American adults experienced symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 36.4 percent the year before. In a similar vein, UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children 2021” report found that on the global scale there are now more than 1 in 7 adolescents (ages 10–19) living with a diagnosed mental disorder.

The rising need for care is one of the reasons local social worker Megan Mertaugh-Graber founded Care-O-Van, a mobile mental health service that will operate out of a retrofitted school bus when the program officially launches next month.

“There are some amazing organizations in this community that are working hard to try to unify and make an impact,” Mertaugh-Graber says. “My hope is to make mental health services that much more accessible at the source of where people need to be met geographically.”

Mertaugh-Graber is a Traverse City native who completed two master’s degrees — one in education and the other in social work —  at the University of Minnesota. Prior to the start of the pandemic, she was working as a school-linked mental health practitioner, but her world was turned upside down by schools closing and the move to telehealth.

“I was thankful for the platform of telehealth because it allowed me to get stay connected in the lives of the kiddos and families I was working with,” she says. But the home environment did not offer the same safety and separation as an office, leading to “increased transparency around a family’s willingness for more physical discipline and more elevated domestic violence events. I couldn’t stop it — I couldn’t reach through the screen and interrupt it. As a practitioner, my sense of agency just plummeted.”

That was when Mertaugh-Graber knew she had to get creative and meet clients where they were, a challenge she took literally.

“I was like, ‘Well, what if I get a bus and then I can go to the sites where families can access me? I can start integrating my passions and what I find most effective as healing modalities and methods.’”

“I couldn't do that within schools,” she adds.

When it opens in March, Care-O-Van will serve an array of clients, with children, teens, families, and caregivers at the core. Mertaugh-Graber’s expertise in everything from early childhood development to addiction to depression allows her to offer a wide range of services centered around the safe space created by the Care-O-Van bus.

The bus is intended to be experiential, a place where art, play, nature, and animals all come together to offer clients different modes of expression and healing. Mertaugh-Graber believes in what she calls “embodied learning and healing,” which takes a hands-on approach far from the stereotypical experience of lying on a couch and admitting all your deepest darkest secrets.

“Words are a hard way to express ourselves and our needs,” she says. “An individual might not be able to explain, ‘Well, this is what I felt.’ And this is why those experiences that are often harmful and hurtful and traumatic can be so disorganized.” She goes on to say that different activities and therapeutic methods can resolve the same issues and questions in a more organic, authentic way. 

Mertaugh-Graber explains that she facilitates her sessions in a “partially directed” way, letting the clients choose how they want to engage and share, whether that’s with an art project, therapy toys, or an intentional walk through the woods. 

“It’s more welcoming — it feels less judgmental,” Mertaugh-Graber says of her approach. “What I find is … the outcomes from a session or from that healing work are even more profound.”

With the March launch just around the corner, Mertaugh-Graber is hard at work with intakes and assessments for Care-O-Van’s first clients. She is also searching for partners who can host Care-O-Van on-site, particularly schools and farms. A farm partnership, she says, could be a partnership of “reciprocal gifting” where a client would help with farm chores while still having a purposeful session with Mertaugh-Graber based on goals and objectives that are horticulturally based.

Although Care-O-Van’s doors have not yet opened, Mertaugh-Graber thinks the future is bright.

“The long-term goal of Care-O-Van is that it won’t just be one bus and me as a practitioner,” she says. “It can become a platform that can help reach rural locations and rural communities. There’ll be multiple buses and multiple practitioners able to spiderweb out into our communities in our region to help meet the needs that are so present with the elevated levels of depression and anxiety.” 

Learn more at careovan.com.

No Llama Drama
In addition to traveling across northern Michigan, the Care-O-Van bus will also spend time on Mertaugh-Graber’s farm — called the AVEC Care Farm — where interacting with a herd of llamas, chickens, and a bunny are all part of the therapeutic process.

Mertaugh-Graber is the daughter of two veterinarians and grew up on a farm herself, so she considers animals as “teachers and guides” who can “meet a person at a much more elemental relational place that can oftentimes feel safer” than interacting with other humans.

“Llamas are very good boundary teachers,” she says, laughing. (And not because they spit — we asked.) “The requirements that llamas often have are that you have a calm body and a quiet voice. Especially for kiddos that have super wiggly bodies, or even adults working with anger management challenges or impulsivity, there’s all this practice beforehand that goes into being able to achieve [an interaction]. It’s magical to see it happen.”


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