Farmers’ market with a mission

At Connecticut Mental Health Center, mental health isn’t just about the mind. It’s about the body, too.

Why else would a community mental health center open a farmers’ market in its parking lot?

“We’re in the middle of a health crisis in this country,” says Michael J. Sernyak, MD, CEO of Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC). “One of the best things we can do for our mental and physical health is to eat better food. The farmers’ market helps all of us—clients, staff, and neighbors—to do just that.”

The Hill Farmers’ Market at CMHC began in 2010 when The CMHC Foundation, the not-for-profit supporting organization of CMHC, launched a fruitful collaboration with New Haven-based CitySeed, which runs the market along with several others in the city.

The collaboration continues to this day, and the market is thriving. This year, it runs every Friday from July 12—October 25, 11 AM-2 PM.  It features seasonal produce grown by Connecticut farmers; local baked goods; wholesome lunches; and arts and crafts by CMHC clients. It even has music—local performers, such as The Kings of Harmony, whose “trombone shout band” rocked the market on opening day.

For CMHC, the market opened a new door. Sound Mind, Sound Body, the Center’s broader initiative focusing on physical health as inseparable from mental health, has developed since. The organization is transforming its food program, renovating its cafeteria and changing the way it delivers meals to people on the inpatient unit. The changes will mean high quality, affordable, fresh food for all who come through the doors of CMHC.

Dr. Sernyak says the current health crisis in the U.S., which includes record obesity and diabetes rates, is affecting all of us, directly or indirectly. Trim and in shape today, he has struggled with his own weight in the past and is acutely aware of how food laden with too much sugar, fat, salt, and chemical additives is bad for everyone, including CMHC patients. “If I’m overweight and feel bad physically and have an accumulation of health problems, why wouldn’t that impact my mental health?”

Conversely, mental illness sometimes gets in the way of people taking care of themselves. An estimated 90% of people with serious mental illness are trauma survivors. Trauma—which includes many forms of violence—happens to the body; trauma survivors often cope by disconnecting from their bodies in different ways.  Add to this deep poverty, which makes it difficult for people to access nutritious foods, and side effects from psychiatric medications, and we begin to see why people with serious mental illness are dying, on average, 25 years earlier than the general population.

“It’s not acceptable and we can do something about it,” says Dr. Sernyak.

CMHC makes it easy for patients to visit the market by hosting it on site and providing $5 vouchers to patients. Clinicians distribute vouchers to their clients; in the past, they’ve noticed that patients are more likely to come to appointments during farmers’ market season.

For Kyle Pedersen, Director of the CMHC Foundation, the market stands as evidence of what can happen when people come together around a larger purpose. “The Foundation is all about building healthier lives and a stronger community,” says Pedersen. “The Market does that. It shows a huge commitment on CMHC’s part to work in the vanguard of mental health care services.”

This article was submitted by Shane Seger on July 18, 2013.

The official "lettuce toss" opened the Market on July 5. From left: Kyle Pedersen, Director, CMHC Foundation; Michael J. Sernyak, MD, CEO of CMHC; and Andrew Orefice of Yale-New Haven Health System, a major sponsor of the market.
The Kings of Harmony "trombone shout" band played on opening day at the Hill Farmers' Market at CMHC.

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Michael J Sernyak

Professor of Psychiatry