Virgil Stucker ’74: Mental health care needs a holistic approach

In helping those with mental health issues and emotional distress, Virgil Stucker ’74 of Tryon, North Carolina, focuses on a holistic approach of psychiatric care as well as community healing to help people recover and re-establish their sense of belonging in the world.

Stucker is the founding executive director of the Cooperriis Healing Community. Founded in 2003, Cooperriis now is based on two campuses, one in Mill Springs and one in Asheville. Patients have access to many means of wellness such as therapy, medication, exercise and a nutritious diet.

Those living on the campuses also work 20 hours a week at a task important to the community, such as animal care, gardening or cooking. This helps patients feel needed and instilled with a purpose each day.

After leaving campus, patients also may partake in CooperRiis’ reintegration program, which offers apartments with staff support, and assistance re-entering college, finding employment or readjusting to living outside the campus.

Stucker has been embedded in the therapeutic community since 1975, first working at Gould Farm in Massachusetts. “My fundamental understanding comes from my studies in philosophy at Ripon where I was fascinated by the study of metaphysics, especially process metaphysics, that helped me to realize that the state of nature is community and that the logos of community is philanthropy, the love of humankind,” Stucker says. He gives special credit to former Professor of Philosophy William Tyree.

For many years, Stucker has felt that the medical model for treatment, using only medication, is incomplete and will not result in as full a recovery. “Typical mental health care is reductionist and treats people like broken objects to be fixed,” Stucker says. “We are whole human beings in relationship with the world; we are not meant to be treated like objects. The only real healing occurs when you approach mental health work at the soul or holistic level. All other approaches pale in comparison.”

He says that his wife, Lis, and their philanthropic founders, Don and Lisbeth Riis Cooper, were his inspiration. “I was immersed in helping a community hospital and healthcare system do an economic and spiritual turnaround, when my wife and I were invited into a dialogue with Don and Lisbeth,” he says. “As their vision for their dream emerged, my wife saw this as a ‘calling.’ ”

Stucker had helped create four healing communities previously, but he, his wife, and the Riis Coopers agreed it was time to start another one. The community has thrived and currently has more than 100 daily patients and 220 staff members. According to exit data, CooperRiis patients say they have achieved a sense of belonging in the world, and a purpose and plan for their lives, and they feel more empowered to handle life’s challenges.

Stucker will retire and become president emeritus of CooperRiis in January, but plans to continue supporting the community.

Megan Sohr ’18
Oshkosh, Wisconsin

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