“Gould Farm is a unique and pioneering refuge for people with mental health challenges…a place where respect, relationship, work, and friends are central to the healing process.” — Oliver Sacks, M.D.
What are the things that make you feel most at home? A safe and cozy living space? Good food and conversation? Being with family and friends? Shared responsibilities? Spending time in nature?
When you visit Gould Farm, located in rural Monterey, Mass., you encounter all that and more. The 700-acre working farm, 100-year-old farmhouse and surrounding buildings, and 50-person staff defy most images you may have of “treatment centers” that provide clinical-level care. The community known as Gould Farm is, in fact (per its website), “the first and longest-running residential therapeutic community in the nation dedicated to helping adults with mental health and related challenges move toward recovery and independence through community living, meaningful work, and clinical care.”
A welcome setting and supportive community
Indeed, from the moment you enter the living room of the old farmhouse at 100 Gould Road, you may find yourself (as I did on a recent two-hour visit) feeling a unique sensation of deep connection. From the calves in the fields to the sounds of instruments flowing from the Community Center to the peaceful, woodsy trails lined with maple sap buckets, Gould Farm exudes a calm caring that defies all notions of “a speedy recovery.” Here human healing happens with “the invisible molecular forces that work from individual to individual” (William James), much as it does in nature, with fungi, tree roots, and all of life.
One of the first noticeable shifts in the mental health paradigm is that Gould Farm refers to residents as “guests,” welcoming them into a supportive community environment made up of staff and their families (nearly all of whom live on campus). The second is that the relationships are ordained “partnerships” between the staff and the adults who come to the farm—whether due to depression, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, or other challenges.
The goal? To help guests “rebuild and regain their lives” through a full continuum of services, alongside individual sessions with a dedicated clinician. The expectation? That guests are “willing and motivated to engage in treatment and community”—the only way the partnership can work. They also require one family member to commit to supporting the guest’s journey, including close communication with GF staff, regular visits, and support during the transition to life outside the farm.
A new paradigm with proven outcomes
Founded by William and Agnes Gould in 1913, Gould Farm is known as the first modern-day residential therapeutic community in the U.S. and has been featured in national media outlets such as NPR, Psychology Today, and The Wall Street Journal. Rooted in the beauty of the Berkshires and the restorative power of nature and meaningful work, they founded a program based on Christian principles and compassion for dealing with “the deep problems of human life, emotion, and relationships” (from “Brother Will and The Founding of Gould Farm”). In a time when people with mental illness were typically sent to asylums with barred windows and crude psychiatric practices that often caused more harm than healing, the Goulds’ vision was nothing short of remarkable.
To this day, Gould Farm shines as an inspiring model for treatment facilities throughout the world. As Joan Arehart-Trichel described in Psychiatric News over a decade ago, Gould Farm’s first published Outcomes Study of 450 guests found that guests showed statistically significant improvements from the beginning to the end of their treatment and reported that the farm “had helped them with their mental health, physical health, family relationships, and social relationships.”
When asked what had helped them the most during their farm stay, “they rated friends, family, and community most highly, followed by work and staff, then by therapy, activities, and safety/structure, and finally by psychotropic medications.” Laurie Heatherington, who oversees the ongoing Gould Farm Outcomes Study, noted when presenting the 2018 results that at discharge, guests reported significantly less severe symptoms, regardless of diagnosis, as well as statistically significant gains in self-reported quality of life.
Overcoming traditional roadblocks to getting treatment
Many who experience mental or emotional challenges turn away from getting help due to insurance and financial roadblocks, fear of isolation in a clinical setting, and social stigmas. Gould Farm manages to surmount those obstacles. With 36 guests (on average), nine- to 12-month stays, and a $400 daily full-rate treatment fee, keeping the nonprofit, private-pay facility economically strong is both a challenge and a priority. “We try not to turn anyone away,” Outreach Director Stephanie McMahon states.
Just as they practice sustainable farming, the Gould staff implements important measures to ensure they can continue to provide generous financial aid to all who need it (over 50 percent of current guests are getting a fee reduction). Eighty-five percent of the annual operating budget is covered by program/participant fees, with 10 percent coming from grants and contributions and 5 percent from income generated by social enterprises—namely a cafe, bakery, farm, and garden products. Many families of former guests remain lifelong donors out of a deep sense of gratitude, McMahon notes.
Gould Farm relies on its vibrant work program as both a financial strategy and a therapeutic model, engaging staff and guests in cultivating 60 acres of farmland, mowing the hayfields, milking the cows, gathering eggs, planting greenhouses to carry them through the winter, chopping wood and tapping maple trees for syrup in the spring, baking and selling goods, running the cafe, and a host of other things.
A working farm based on team commitment
The working farm model achieves many things: It provides structure, training, and shared responsibility; ensures high-quality organic and sustainable food that enriches everyone’s health; and teaches skills and independence to empower guests to transition to independent living and working when the time is right. “Growing our own food and products has always been an important part of life on Gould Farm, even before ‘going local’ became cool everywhere,” Garden Team Manager Mel Hochstetler says, grinning.
And with over 10 miles of private hiking trails, ponds for ice hockey or fishing, and a wood-fired sauna beside a brook for swimming, the “farm” could almost pass as a “glamping” retreat. Guests live in one of three houses (each has a Resident Advisor) with single bedrooms and shared baths, and the three-story old farmhouse is filled with home-sized rooms for eating and meeting. The staff members and their families live in houses scattered throughout the campus, sharing in the daily chores, meals, and activities year-round.
The power of long-term investing
“A lot of staff members and their families have been here a very long time,” McMahon shares. “In fact, 50 percent of the staff has been here between 10 and 30 years!” She was raised on the farm and other therapeutic communities by parents who met as volunteers and became longtime staff, and now lives here with her husband (Farm Manager Matthew McMahon) and their children. Executive Director Lisanne Finston will celebrate 10 years this fall.
Transition Counselor Liz Halla-Mattingly refers to staff kids as “free-range kids,” noting that her 11-year-old daughter begs to participate in every activity she can (soccer, softball, frisbee, game nights, and holiday parties) with the guests. Francie Leventhal, Kitchen/Roadside Manager, adds that having kids sharing the meals and being involved in the community provides good energy. “We’re fully invested—showing up, being involved in every aspect of the community.”
Providing care and inspiring healing
Each guest receives about 13 hours of clinical and wellness support each week. The clinical support staff consists of two consulting psychiatrists, six LICSW therapists, and nursing staff, who offer wellness activities and clinically-based groups year-round. The foundation of the clinical work is relational, using various modalities depending on each guest’s preferences and needs (including different behavioral therapies and psychodynamic interventions).
Guests also get to choose their work team in fulfilling 28 hours of structured work per week—animal care, milking/cheesemaking (partnering with docile Guernsey Jersey cows known as “the ladies”), vegetable gardening, baking, maple syrup production, and kitchen help for three meals a day. (Working at the Roadside Cafe will be an option again in 2024.) “Those needing to ease into social interactions can start with a cow or a plant and build from there,” McMahon explains. “It’s also possible to split, mix, or hop between teams for variety.” This meaningful work gives everyone in the community a purpose and helps foster competence/self-confidence, teamwork, and other transferable skills that are invaluable for gaining independence.
The Transition Program provides comprehensive support to help guests “retain and exercise the skills they’ve gained” as they transition from residential care to a more independent level of care. O’Connell House (on the Farm) in Monterey enables up to five residents to live and work independently in the Berkshire region while still benefiting from the Farm’s community life and programmatic support. Fellside House, located in Medford, can support up to 11 residents while providing access to all the vocational and educational resources Boston has to offer. Approximately 25 percent of the guests choose to utilize this program to move to life beyond the farm, according to Halla-Mattingly.
Pandemic testing and new challenges
One of the biggest challenges in recent years was the pandemic—an especially difficult situation for people with mental health needs due to the intense isolation they experienced, the shortage of available therapists, and the fear of joining a care community.
In its March 2022 brief, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported this eye-opening statistic: “In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25 percent,” according to a scientific brief released by the WHO in March 2022. Young people and women were hit hardest. “The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” noted Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”
The Leadership Team remained committed to upholding the health and safety of the entire farm community, though not without a struggle. For the nursing and administrative teams, providing meals, housing, and programming throughout the different stages of the pandemic meant constantly updating protocols and testing, giving vaccines, and splitting guest activities into shifts to reduce the size of the gatherings. “We were especially worried about protecting guests who were immunocompromised or whose medications placed them at greater risk for Covid when everything we do relies on living in community,” Nursing Manager Jenna Bufano explains. Working with the Leadership Team, she also navigated how to safely manage family members of staff (kids in school, spouses working off the farm). “Burnout was a real thing,” she acknowledges, “and we weren’t alone.”
An ongoing challenge shared by many organizations now is increasing equity and inclusion, McMahon notes. “Diversity efforts are undergoing a reckoning everywhere, and that is true at Gould Farm, too,” she admits. “The access piece is there, but psychological institutions have been predominantly white, so it is hard to attract more diverse staff, and without diverse staff, it is hard to attract diverse guests.”
Locals who loved eating at The Roadside Cafe, a beloved breakfast spot since 1978 and favorite work team among guests, were saddened to see it closed for good in November 2021 due to disrepair. For over four decades, the little red shack provided locals with delicious, hubcap-sized pancakes (and other farm delights) and the guests with a healing work environment and ties to the neighboring community. But don’t despair! They plan to start building a new $1.7 million structure with twice the seating capacity this spring, with an expected opening by early 2024. “Roadside 2.0 will retain the warmth and charm that our customers know and love while adding a bakery counter that will showcase Harvest Barn treats and a dedicated market space selling farm products and other locally sourced goods,” Leventhal promises.
Increasing community support
How can you support Gould Farm? The leadership team offers these and other options detailed on their website:
- Read the website blogs and sign up to get the email newsletter every other month.
- Buy cheese made on the farm (Agnes is the newest variety!), sold at Nejaime’s.
- Buy veggies from the greenhouse, maple syrup, and (soon) handmade soaps at the Sheffield Farmer’s Market this spring.
- Help raise the $5,000 needed to buy a worm harvester to double the vermiculture enterprise, which will save 1,000 hours of work separating worms from matter.
- Help raise the remaining $500,000 needed to complete the new “Roadside Cafe 2.0” and frequent the restaurant when it reopens.
- Donate a wish-list item to support the Nursing Office (concrete items or wellness programs).
- Participate (come out and run around!) in the Gould Farm 5K at the end of September.
- Attend the Virtual Info Session on April 5th and apply to the Volunteer Program (a one-year, FT position with room and board, full health insurance, five weeks PTO, and a small stipend).
- Join the team (they are hiring now).
With these and other opportunities to lend a hand, you too can become part of “the invisible molecular forces that work from individual to individual.” If you find a fraction of the joy I experienced in my recent visit, you will leave feeling much more hopeful about the current global mental health statistics and our shared ability to address them. As McMahon reminds us, “At Gould Farm, the cows and the plants are there to keep us company and teach us all what it takes to have deep roots, rich soil, and a strong sense of belonging and purpose”—a bit of wisdom all of us, guests staying on the farm and people living outside the farm, can hold onto.