therapy hits the road | Characteristics

Local social worker launches Care-O-Van
By Jillian Manning | February 26, 2022

Back in November 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 skyrocketing the need for mental health services among children and adults. Meanwhile, providers are so busy that they sometimes have to turn patients away or put them on a waiting list.

Our region is not alone in facing these problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared a study last March reporting that between August 2020 and February 2021, 41.5% of American adults experienced symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, compared to 36.4% the last year. In a similar vein, UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children 2021” report found that globally, more than one in seven adolescents (aged 10-19) lives with a diagnosed mental disorder.

The growing 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 at the official launch of the program next month.

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

Mertaugh-Graber is a Traverse City native and earned two master’s degrees — one in education and the other in social work — from the University of Minnesota. Before the pandemic began, she worked as a school mental health practitioner, but her world was turned upside down by school closures and the shift to telehealth.

“I was grateful for the telehealth platform because it allowed me to stay in touch with the lives of the children and families I worked with,” she says. But the home environment did not provide the same security and separation as an office, leading to “increased transparency around a family’s desire for more physical discipline and higher domestic violence events. I couldn’t stop him – I couldn’t reach up to the screen and interrupt him. As a practitioner, my sense of agency just collapsed.

It was then that Mertaugh-Graber realized she had to get creative and meet clients where they were, a challenge she literally took on.

“I was like, ‘Well, what if I take a bus and then I can go to the sites where families can join me? I can begin to incorporate my passions and what I find most effective in healing modalities and methods.

“I couldn’t do that in schools,” she adds.

When it opens in March, Care-O-Van will serve a range of customers, with children, teens, families and caregivers at heart. Mertaugh-Graber’s expertise in everything from early childhood development to addiction to depression enables it 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 come together to offer customers different modes of expression and healing. Mertaugh-Graber believes in what she calls “embodied learning and healing,” which takes a hands-on approach away from the stereotypical experience of lying on a couch and admitting all your darkest secrets. deep.

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

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

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

With the March launch fast approaching, Mertaugh-Graber is hard at work with admissions and assessments for Care-O-Van’s first customers. She is also looking for partners who can host Care-O-Van on site, including schools and farms. An agricultural partnership, she says, could be a “reciprocal giving” partnership where a client helps with farm chores while having a focused session with Mertaugh-Graber based on horticulture-based goals and objectives.

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

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

Learn more at

No llama drama
In addition to traveling through northern Michigan, the Care-O-Van bus will also spend time at Mertaugh-Graber’s farm – called AVEC Care Farm – where to interact with a herd of llamas, chickens and a rabbit. is part of the therapeutic treatment.

Mertaugh-Graber is the daughter of two veterinarians and grew up on a farm herself. She therefore sees animals as “teachers and guides” who can “meet a person in a much more basic relational place that can often feel safer” than interacting with others. humans.

“Lamas are very good masters of borders,” she laughs. (And not because they spit – we asked.) “The demands lamas often have are that you have a calm body and a calm voice. Especially for kids who have super fidgety bodies, or even for adults who work with anger management or impulsiveness challenges, there’s all that prior practice that achieves [an interaction]. It’s magical to see this happen.

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