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Advocacy & Outreach

Our advocacy and outreach initiatives range from supporting local community partnerships to work at the national level promoting equitable access to care, implementation of the mental health parity law, and reduction of health disparities. Though diverse in scope, these efforts share a common theme: finding ways to improve the lives of people who struggle with mental disorders.

The Erikson Institute for Research, Education, and Advocacy of the Austen Riggs Center focuses its public outreach and engagement in two core areas: Biopsychosocial Advocacy and Human Development.

Biopsychosocial Advocacy

Our biopsychosocial advocacy work has two foci: clinical advocacy and social policy advocacy.
The background for our clinical advocacy extends back to the 1970s when the term “biopsychosocial” was first used to describe the causes and treatment of mental disorders. The biopsychosocial model suggests that an individual’s biology, psychology, and social context each play roles in mental disorders and their treatment. Contemporary research strongly supports the biopsychosocial model through evidence demonstrating the importance of both genes and environmental factors like childhood adversity in mental disorders. 
In keeping with the biopsychosocial model, psychotherapy plays a crucial role in treatment. There is substantial evidence that several forms of psychotherapy are effective in treating patients with single disorders, complex co-occurring disorders, and so-called “treatment resistant” disorders—and that psychotherapy may be the preferred treatment for people with histories of early adverse life experiences. As such, our clinical advocacy encourages a shift away from competition between schools of therapy toward recognition of a need to define shared elements of psychotherapy associated with change—regardless of school of therapy. Additionally, we seek to emphasize the importance of psychotherapy as part of the training and practice of psychiatrists.
Our social policy advocacy ranges from seeking full implementation of the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act—also known as the parity law—to raising public awareness of the stigma that many people who suffer from mental health issues face.
—Eric M. Plakun, MD
Addressing parity head-on, Austen Riggs Medical Director and CEO Eric Plakun, MD, testified as plaintiffs' expert on adult mental disorders in the landmark Wit v. United Behavioral Health case. The judge’s finding in favor of the plaintiffs* is having a profound impact on issues of access to care, forcing the nation’s largest mental health insurance provider to comply with the law, as well as influencing new legislation based on the verdict.
We also raise awareness of the social disparities that often accompany mental illness through our Austen Riggs Erikson Prize for Excellence in Mental Health Media, and the Four Freedoms of Mental Health Award.

*On March 22, 2022 the Ninth Circuit Court reversed the US District Court for the Northern District of California’s February 2019 decision in Wit v. United Behavioral Health. To read more about this development and what it could mean to you, visit:

Human Development

Under the direction of Donna Elmendorf, PhD, our Human Development Initiative seeks to apply the Austen Riggs Center’s relational view of early development to a community-based preventive model of care. The offerings build on learning from our Therapeutic Community Program in which an individual is recognized, understood, and supported in the broader contexts of family, community, and society.
Broadly speaking, our Human Development Initiative supports infant, child, and family mental health in Berkshire County—a rural area characterized by a lack of access to mental health care and critical social health care resources—while also bringing a deeper understanding of the process of human development to educators and clinicians, including Riggs staff, and patients. —Donna Elmendorf, PhD
One of our early community health outreach projects focused on providing training for maternity nurses, pediatricians, early intervention clinicians, family physicians, nurse practitioners, and home visitors to learn the Newborn Behavioral Observation (NBO) system, which helps parents recognize and respond to their baby’s unique qualities and capacity for communication. The training offered a theoretical framework, exposure to current research, and practical guidance for clinical intervention. Once launched, in collaboration with Riggs, this project has evolved further on its own.
In 2020, we partnered with the Southern Berkshire Collaborative Care Team, led by local pediatrician Deborah Buccino, MD, to provide an integrated community-wide holding environment for at-risk families and children and the range of practitioners who serve them. The mission of this community partnership is to better connect, coordinate, and build strong relationships that support healthy human development and resilience. Further, our education, provided in collaboration with the Yale Child Study Center has been a crucial intervention, deepening local clinicians’ and educators’ understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experience on development. This effort not only supports families but also providers, who are seeing increased risk of burnout from the challenges of their difficult work.
Since formalizing our Human Development Initiative in 2017, we have received almost $500,000 in donations from individuals and foundations, including major contributions from the John Leopold Weil and Geraldine Rickard Weil Memorial Charitable Foundation and numerous other donors.

Contact Us for More

For more information about advocacy and outreach, or to answer any questions, please feel free to contact us.