The Hartford Advocate

A Sane Solution to a Mad World
By Jayne Keedle
Published in Hartford Advocate on 07/29/99

Call him crazy, but psychologist Dr. Richard Shulman doesn’t think every patient who comes to him for help should have to pay an exorbitant fee. Nor does he believe his patients’ employers have a right to know who among their staff is seeking mental health treatment. That’s why, when he left the Institute of Living three years ago to set up his own practice, Shulman didn’t become part of an HMO.

Shulman doesn’t believe in putting his diagnoses in writing to insurers. He worries it violates his patients’ rights to privacy. “I know some people are concerned their employers would know simply that they accessed their psychiatric care benefits,” says Shulman. Nor did he want to have to justify recommended courses of treatment, or exaggerate problems, just to make sure the insurer would pay up.

Of course, not every patient can afford to pay out of pocket for treatment. So Shulman searched for a solution. He founded a new non-profit organization, Volunteers In Psychotherapy, Inc. (VIP) which offers no-fee psychotherapy.

Instead of paying for their sessions, Shulman’s patients volunteer at local charitable organizations. In exchange for helping others, Shulman and two other like-minded psychotherapists help them.

“I thought this would be a workable approach,” says Shulman. In fact, he tested his theory on a small scale first, offering a maximum of four sessions per person to people who donated their time to nonprofit organizations.

Now VIP is officially a non-profit, with a board of six directors, (four psychotherapists, two nonprofit specialists). It is also the recent beneficiary of a $7,500 grant from the J. Walton Bissell Foundation of Hartford. The new influx of funds has enabled Shulman to expand his private experiment into a program he hopes could be duplicated.

“We think this is an approach which could be replicated elsewhere,” says Shulman. “I don’t know of any other organization that’s doing anything like this [but] we see no reason why other groups couldn’t do this.”

The concept is certainly simple enough. For one hour of therapy, patients must perform three to four hours of volunteer work. Shulman specifies it has to be something that directly benefit others, (singing in the church choir, for instance, doesn’t count). The therapists also offer a sliding scale for people who want to pay for part of their sessions, but as a nonprofit, their rates are less than half the average fee set by area therapists.

Shulman, who has worked in the past at clinics where patients pay nothing at all, thinks it’s a mistake not to ask clients not to make any sort of contribution. In that situation, he says, “you are seen as ministering to them or taking care of them, and not having it be an equal exchange in which they show their commitment.”

By contrast, asking people to contribute their time and energy to something that benefits the community, Shulman feels, “says you have some assets and something to give. Everyone is contributing to the common good.” As Shulman sees it, doing volunteer work is good therapy, too.

For information about VIP, call 233-5115.