Community volunteers earn psychotherapy hours in VIP program

By Richard Shulman, Ph.D.
January 1, 2008



You’re a psychologist providing psychotherapy in private practice. Depending on your perspective, you might be eager to provide therapy that is:

  • Completely private, with no reports required by insurers, government, nor documentation that goes to employers – so that your clients can speak openly about difficult intimate topics.
  • Client-controlled, with no rationing by a third-party payer who profits by denying people access to therapy.
  • Accessible to any client, regardless of their ability to pay or possession of insurance.
  • Attuned to the subtleties of what the client talks about, both directly and indirectly – rather than focused on topics a payer tells you they’ll reimburse.
  • Separate from any secondary agendas clients may have, such as seeking disability payments, attaining a favorable legal judgment, educational placement or custody arrangement, etc.
  • Only focused on the agenda of truthful exploration and resolution of difficult personal or familial problems that couldn’t easily be discussed in a less private setting.
  • Earned or paid for by the clients themselves so they contribute something meaningful in the exchange, are invested in their own progress and take ultimate responsibility for their own lives. Clients also pay for any irresponsibly cancelled or “no show” sessions.

If this list of conditions does describe many of your therapy preferences, then you might be interested to know of the approach taken by Volunteers in Psychotherapy (VIP), a nonprofit organization developed by psychologists and nonprofit experts in Hartford, Conn., in 1999.

VIP provides psychotherapy that is strictly private and of a duration determined by the client, almost always for no fee, to clients who agree to privately provide ongoing independent volunteer work elsewhere to the community nonprofit, charity or government agency of their choice.

Four hours of volunteering is required to earn each therapy session. For example, in exchange for substantial hours of documented volunteering at a hospital, soup kitchen, nursing home or youth program, people can earn strictly private therapy with one of VIP’s licensed practitioners.

If a VIP client volunteers at a soup kitchen, that agency doesn’t know of the volunteer’s involvement in VIP – the volunteer just gets some written documentation of their work hours, which they forward to us independently. This preserves the client’s privacy.

VIP was founded at a time when managed care had curtailed the provision of psychotherapy and undermined privacy by requiring reports on the private lives of clients by therapists. Working independently of insurance, we aren’t required to send reports to insurers that undermine privacy nor to provide documentation that may become available to employers.

Funding cuts and financial pressures have influenced many public clinics to provide much less private psychotherapy and to focus on short-term educational groups and especially provision of medication. VIP is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and providing truly private psychotherapy for those in the community who can’t afford to pay for therapy out of their own pockets, since that is the only way to ensure real privacy and client control.

Volunteer work done by VIP clients promotes multiple benefits: greater confidence and autonomy, recognition of their value to others, enjoyment of a job well done in contributing to others and increased involvement with the common good of the community.

VIP creates fair exchanges. We don’t give “something for nothing.” Clients “pay for” their therapy with their community volunteer work, which is done independently and privately. And clients ration their use of VIP services since the high work requirement puts them in the position of being a consumer, making their own autonomous decisions about the worth, to them, of their therapy.

In the eight years of VIP’s existence, we have worked with over 300 individuals and families who have earned about 2,500 therapy sessions through roughly 10,000 hours of independent volunteering. VIP was granted the Award for Distinguished Psychological Contribution in the Public Interest by the Connecticut Psychological Association and also received award recognition from the American Institute of Medical Education.

As a tax-exempt, charitable nonprofit entity, approved by the IRS, VIP is supported by many community-minded individuals who have made tax-deductible donations that underwrite our service. VIP is also eligible for grant support from charitable foundations – another mainstay of our financial support. Psychologists who provide therapy for VIP through their private practices are paid (per session) from these funds.

Would you like to adapt a program like this to your own community?

You could create a similar, but independent, nonprofit organization in your own area. You could shape the framework of therapy in a way that seemed best for you or a group of similarly committed professionals, tailoring and adapting the program to your community needs and your own particular interests in serving them.

Why reinvent the wheel when you could borrow from our experience?

We can help you based on the lessons we have learned, guiding you to avoid potential pitfalls and easing your way into developing your own independent nonprofit program for provision of therapy. We can point you toward resources – some of which probably already exist in your own community – which could help you to develop an adjunct to your own practice. You may already have resources available to you – obvious or hidden – which could put you in an even better position to develop and implement your own local program than we were when we developed VIP.

Toward this end of consulting with other psychologists like you, we’ve begun investigating relevant charitable funding. Our success in developing local support for our Hartford-area charitable service emboldened us to apply for seed funding from regional and national foundations to export this approach to interested therapists in other areas.

Previously we have successfully applied for and been granted almost 60 modest grants to provide our therapy services locally. We developed VIP without any particular prospective funding. But having functioned well over these last eight-plus years, we can help you to find, recruit and cultivate resources which could lead to your own thriving, autonomous nonprofit program.

There may already be professional organizations comprised of attorneys, accountants, retired nonprofit executives, etc., who are offering their pro bono consultation to start-up nonprofit organizations in your area. Your nonprofit could access free publicity and collaborations with other community groups that will help to market your service and make it visible and could also help connect you to potential local sources of funding.

These collaborative resources and your efforts, together with other like-minded, committed colleagues, could help you to establish a psychotherapeutic community service that is accessible to everyone. Your program could simultaneously help you to control your own professional life and your provision of therapy under optimal conditions of privacy and client-control – and allow you to establish a reasonable reimbursement to you for a job well done: a job helping people who are earning your services by helping still other people.

Let us help you to investigate this possibility.

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Learn more about Volunteers in Psychotherapy at the VIP website (www.CTVIP.org) or by calling Richard Shulman, Ph.D., VIP Director at (860) 233-5115.

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