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‘You could be the catalyst for saving a life’

Kevin Hines speaks at Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Since his suicide attempt in 2000, Hines has traveled the country to speak about his experience with mental health.
Kevin Hines/Courtesy photo

Three questions could be the difference between life and death for someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Are you OK? Is something wrong? Can I help you?”

Kevin Hines wishes someone had asked him those words before he jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000, he said in a keynote speech for a virtual Longevity Project event on Sept. 21.

He encourages others to “be bold” and reach out when they see signs of distress in others, asking those questions that he himself “desperately needed to hear” nearly two decades ago in San Francisco.

“You could be the catalyst for saving a life,” he said.

Hines was suffering from “lethal emotional pain,” a “common denominator” among those who attempt suicide, he said.

But in a course of events Hines considers nothing short of a miracle — he did not die upon impact with the water, nor did he drown; after surfacing, Hines was kept afloat by a sea lion until the Coast Guard rescued him from the bay — he survived that suicide attempt and now dedicates his life to suicide prevention and mental health advocacy.

The Longevity Project


The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to drive discussion about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year’s project focuses on mental health. The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent partnered to explore topics in mental health including resources (Aug. 26), substance use (Sept. 3), suicide prevention (Sept. 10) and law enforcement (Sept. 17).

Our project culminated with events Sept. 20 in Rifle and on Zoom with a panel discussion of local leaders and speaker Kevin Hines.

That pain didn’t go away with time, Hines said. But living with it is far better than not living at all. Hines felt “instantaneous regret” in the moment after he jumped from the bridge; he now feels gratitude for his second chance and for the change in perspective that the opportunity to keep living provided.

“I knew in that moment that no matter the pain I would be in, I would never again attempt to take my life so long as I would live,” Hines said. “I knew in that moment I’d been given a second chance, I knew in that moment that I get to be here, and getting to be here is a privilege and a gift, no matter the pain you’re in.”

Hines still experiences suicidal ideations, but he realized “our thoughts don’t have to own, rule or define what happens next; they can simply be our thoughts.”

“They plague me, but they’ll never take me,” Hines said, in part because of that notion that thoughts do not have to equal actions and because he knows to ask for help when that lethal emotional pain comes bearing down.

After so much time silencing and burying pain, Hines said he learned that sharing it lessened its weight.

“You must now recognize today that your pain is valid, your pain is worthy of my time and others’, and our pain matters simply because all of you do,” Hines said. “When we silence our pain and we bury it, the feeling bubbles and festers and grows until it bursts. … When you share your pain, a pain shared becomes a pain halved.”

Chelsea Carnoali, a mental health analyst from Pitkin County Public Health, stands at an information both at Crown Mountain Park during an Overdose Awareness Day event in El Jebel on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Carnoali also was a panelist at a Sept. 20 event for The Longevity Project. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen Strong executive director Angilina Taylor agrees, and it’s especially important with the rising mental health concerns that come with the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said during a post-keynote panel.

“Mental health really kind of got catapulted into the front of people’s minds through the pandemic, which was an unfortunate way for it to happen but I think that so many more of us are sharing our stories and and sharing what’s actually going on with us, which I think in the long run will help us all,” Taylor said.

Keeping the conversation open — and practicing check-ins with oneself and one another — is part of the crucial and ongoing effort to prevent suicide attempts before they happen, said panelist Kate Moyer, the behavioral health coordinator at Aspen Valley Hospital.

“I think really focusing on on tiny little moments that we have in terms of talking with each other can be hugely helpful in just trying to create some of those ripple effects that are really key to spreading awareness and knowledge about what it looks like maybe to not be okay, … the goal being that we can prevent a crisis from happening,” Moyer said.

The pain itself may be “inevitable,” Hines said in his keynote. “It’s coming for all of us if it hasn’t already.”

But “suffering is optional, a choice. … If you instead decide to live with, fight, battle and thrive in spite of your condition or issue, that makes you the hero of your own story, never to suffer again,” he said.

Resources and Support Systems

24-hour crisis hotlines

If someone is an immediate risk to themselves or others, call 911.

Additional crisis support is available via the Aspen Hope Center and Colorado Crisis Services.

Aspen Hope Center: Call 970-925-5858 for the Aspen Hopeline or 970-945-3728 for the Garfield Hopeline. Visit aspenhopecenter.org for more information.

Colorado Crisis Services: Call 844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255. Visit coloradocrisisservices.org for more information.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 800-273-8255. Visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org for more information.

Kevin Hines offers a wide variety of suicide prevention resources on his Youtube channel (bit.ly/3zCNEmt) and his website (kevinhinesstory.com/resources).

Counseling, therapy, case management and mental health support

Aspen Strong: Call 970-718-2842 or visit the provider directory at directory.aspenstrong.org. Use the “Issues” category of the filter tool to see providers valley-wide who specialize in specific needs.

Mountain Family Health Center: Call 945-2840 or visit mountainfamily.org/behavioral-health.

Mind Springs Health: Call the Aspen office at 970-920-5555 or the Glenwood Springs office at 970-945-2583 or visit mindspringshealth.org.

Inpatient psychiatric treatment in Grand Junction at West Springs Hospital. Call 970-263-4918 for an admission assessment.

Pitkin County Public Health offers a guide to mental health resources at pitkincounty.com/mentalhealth.

School-based child and family resources

Aspen Family Connections: Call 970-205-7025 or visit aspenfamilyconnections.org.

Family Resource Center: Call 970-384-9500 for the Roaring Fork office or 970-285-5701 for the Parachute office

Peer support, community and healing hubs

Aperture of Hope: Call 970-948-3621 or visit apertureofhope.com for peer support and recovery resources.

Discovery Cafe: Call 719-650-5978, email gabe@discoverycafe.org or visit discoverycafe.org for support and a safe place to seek resources. Discovery Cafe is located at the Colorado Mountain College Rifle campus at 3695 Airport Road, Rifle.

Pathfinders: Call 970-925-1226 or visit pathfindersforyou.org for support with chronic illness, grief and loss.

Meetings and Gathering Places

Colorado Alcoholics Anonymous District 14 (Glenwood Springs to Aspen, Vail to Parachute): Call 970-245-9649 or 888-333-9649 or visit coaadistrict14.org/meetings.

The Meeting Place: Visit meetingplacecarbondale.org/meetings-1 or stop by 981 Cowen Drive, Carbondale.

Narcotics Anonymous Mountain West Division (Aspen, Basalt, Breckenridge, Carbondale, Eagle, Glenwood Springs, Leadville, Rifle, Vail Valley): Call 970-306-6535 or visit nacolorado.org/mountainwest/MWMeetingList.pdf.

Narcan Access and Training

High Rockies Harm Reduction: Visit highrockiesharmreduction.com. In the event of an overdose emergency, call 911.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Community policing with compassion in the Roaring Fork Valley

Mind Springs’ Kat Buesch adds her thoughts in to a group discussion during a Pitkin Area Co-responder Teams training at the Basalt Fire Department in El Jebel on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Change in the field of law enforcement is happening. Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario has seen it.

For most of his 34-year career in law enforcement, mental health just wasn’t part of the equation in Vallario’s training experience. A violation of the law led to handcuffs; a crime was a crime. A hard-line approach to law enforcement didn’t leave much flexibility — or support — for those experiencing mental distress or a behavioral health crisis.

That isn’t the case anymore, which is a a point of pride for Vallario and other law enforcement officials in the valley.

“So many law enforcement agencies have opened their eyes and shifted to realizing, this isn’t the good old days where all we do is chase criminals,” Vallario said. There is also recognition now that for those experiencing a behavioral issue, “these people might be acting out criminally, but they’re not necessarily criminal.”

The Longevity Project


The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to drive discussion about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year’s project focuses on mental health. The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent partnered to explore topics in mental health including resources (Aug. 26), substance use (Sept. 3), suicide prevention (Sept. 10) and law enforcement (today).

Our project culminates with events Sept. 20 in Rifle (noon) and on Zoom (6 p.m.) with a panel discussion of local leaders and speaker Kevin Hines. An award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker, and suicide prevention and mental health advocate, Hines has reached millions with his story of an unlikely survival. Two years after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, thousands of people have tried to kill themselves by leaping. Only 34 have lived and he is one of them.

Due to a high COVID-19 transmission rate in Pitkin County, the evening event that originally had been set for in-person will be free and hosted virtually on Zoom; registration is still required and donations are encouraged. For more information or to register for the local events, go to aspentimes.com/longevity.

Attendees who purchased tickets for the live event may contact Samantha Johnston at sjohnston@aspentimes.com for a full refund. If a refund is not requested, the donated funds will be used to help offset the speaker fee.

“We deal with a lot of people with a lot of issues that aren’t necessarily criminally related,” he added, “but again, we’re the ones out there at three in the morning, and we’re the ones that people call. … We’re part of the community, too.”

Officers, lawmakers and community members are now more aware of the role mental health plays in a person’s behavior; they’re also more supportive of equipping first responders with the tools necessary to handle those situations, Vallario said.

One of those avenues is training; another is the emergence of co-responder programs that dispatch mental health clinicians to support law enforcement on calls related to behavioral health.

It’s a relatively recent shift in Vallario’s eyes, with awareness growing in the past five years, he said.

Aspen Police Department’s approach to mental health and community policing is evidence of that: Police Chief Richard Pryor secured funding from the city in 2016 for the department’s first human services officer, a position designed to connect people to behavioral health resources rather than place those people in the criminal justice system.

Aspen Human Services Officer Braulio Jerez (right) leads one of the weekly meetings at the Intercept Lot encampment for residents of the camp and case managers to discuss updates with the camp on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“It has evolved for sure, now four years in, because of the abundance of resources that we have in our valley — I think the system has become way more robust,” said Braulio Jerez, who has held the position for a couple of years. (Andy Atkinson, who originated the role, was “instrumental” in shaping how it served the community, Jerez said.)

The initiative has worked well enough that the department just brought on a second human services officer this month. Both officers are core members of the Pitkin Area Co-responder Teams (commonly referred to as PACT), a program that provides training and support for officers and includes mental health professionals to respond alongside law enforcement for some calls.

Human Services Officer for the City of Aspen, Braulio Jerez, speaks during a Pitkin Area Co-responder Teams training course at the Basalt Fire Department in El Jebel on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. Jerez works as a HSO in conjunction with PACT as a dedicated officer for mental health, substance abuse, the senior population and homelessness. He has been in this position for 2 years. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The initiative involves mental health clinicians from the county as well as a peer specialist and a case manager from Mind Springs Health, plus officers and deputies from Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County law enforcement agencies; it launched in 2019 after securing a $1.5 million grant from the state. Similar co-responder programs exist throughout the Roaring Fork Valley as partnerships between local agencies and the Aspen Hope Center.

It’s not that mental health was an entirely foreign concept a decade ago, Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott said. But now, there are a lot more resources to help first responders address it.

“Mental health issues and concerns have always been there,” Knott said. “We’ve just not had the ability to set up systems and provide resources, as we have in the past few years, to really make that the focus and make it collaborative efforts among mental health providers and law enforcement and (emergency medical services) and the hospital.”

Detox Manager for Recovery Resources Collin Kenney, takes notes during a group discussion during a training for Pitkin Area Co-responder Teams at the Basalt Fire Department in El Jebel on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Hiring for compassion, training for success

In Snowmass Village, building a police department equipped to help people experiencing a mental health crisis starts with “you’re hired.”

“We try to choose the right person to become a police officer: someone who exhibits patience, compassion, empathy, just in natural day-to-day life, that makes them a good officer and prepares them for dealing with those mental health challenges that we come across with out on the street,” said Snowmass Police Chief Brian Olson.

Still, it’s no substitute for intensive programs such as mental health first aid and crisis intervention team training, the likes of which are now the norm in departments throughout the valley.

Notes are displayed during a training for Pitkin Area Co-responder Teams at the Basalt Fire Department in El Jebel on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Olson recognizes that need for training and puts it into practice. Every member of the Snowmass Police Department, including patrol officers, community response officers and the front office manager, has completed crisis intervention training.

Jenny Lyons, a county mental health program administrator who focuses on PACT, considers the crisis intervention program to be the “gold standard” in law enforcement training; the 40-hour intensive weeklong program gives officers the tools to help those experiencing mental health crises.

Other departments in the valley like the Aspen Police Department also have trained all of their officers in the program; PACT is even hosting two single-day “CIT 2.0” refresher courses this week, according to Lyons.

Tiffany Crist, a clinician with Brower Psychological Services, addresses the training room during a training for Pitkin Area Co-responder Teams at the Basalt Fire Department in El Jebel on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

And many of those who haven’t yet cleared that all-trained mark are actively working toward a goal of 100% participation in the crisis intervention program, including the Basalt Police Department and Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. An eight-hour mental health first aid program offers a primer for officers in some departments, too.

A dollar spent, a million saved

A program as intensive as crisis intervention team training comes with a price tag that can total tens of thousands of dollars for one session.

PACT, which administers crisis intervention and mental health first aid training sessions for members of the team and other community partners, is a major source of that funding in the upper valley. The program spent $25,000 for a one-week crisis intervention training in the 2021 fiscal year; the one-day refresher courses happening this week cost about $6,000, according to mental health program administrator Jenny Lyons. PACT also contributed around $1,400 for mental health first aid training last year, she said.

Other sources of funding — and expenses —can vary from department to department and depending on the location of the training. At the Basalt Police Department, for instance, Chief Greg Knott said crisis intervention training itself comes at no cost to the agency but the hotel and per diem spending associated with sending one officer to an out-of-town session totals $1,065; that doesn’t include salaries, transportation or other costs.

It hasn’t been difficult convincing local elected officials to support these trainings come budget season, according to Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario. Investing in officer training and co-responding clinicians can save governments in the long run.

“A dollar spent on training could potentially save us a million dollar lawsuit,” Vallario said.

But with conversations about mental health response happening frequently outside of training sessions too, Knott emphasized that it’s near impossible to quantify the scope of the effort by dollars spent on training alone.

“We’re always talking about mental health. … It’s always in the forefront,” he said.

The crisis intervention training goes well beyond lectures in a classroom setting, Olson said. Actors stage possible scenarios in real time and behave just as someone in a crisis might.

“The training is long, it rattles your nerves, it makes your eyes well up with tears — it’s just super powerful, and it was amazing,” Olson said. “I haven’t heard anybody go through it who hasn’t been moved, and who didn’t learn an awful lot.”

The controlled environment gives instructors the opportunity to hit pause and check in with participants; a scenario going south might be followed by a prompt to take the situation in a new direction, teaching participants how to adapt and learn from their missteps while they’re still in a space where the stakes are much lower than they are out in the field.

“Sometimes we learn the most when we fail,” Olson said. “It hurts, but when we fail, we understand most specifically what it is we need to do better. Sometimes, when we get it right, that doesn’t leave a long, lasting impression.”

Collaborating on co-response

Still, training is only one side of the coin. A 40-hour program may be the “gold standard” in ensuring officers are better equipped to handle crisis calls, but it’s hardly an all-encompassing program, nor one that can provide an equivalent to the years professional clinicians and counselors spend earning their qualifications.

“You have to understand that law enforcement officers signed up to be cops, not to be crisis workers,” Vallario said, “and that’s why we rely so heavily on the people that signed up to be crisis workers.”

Hence those co-responder initiatives, which are implemented at agencies throughout the valley to offer mental health resources on the scene and after the call in an effort to better serve people struggling with their mental health.

Funding comes from a variety of sources, including state grants, backing from local municipalities and support for nonprofits that work in tandem with law enforcement.

There is also a community benefit in the outcomes of co-responder programs that can’t be qualified by a dollar amount, officials say.

“If we provide the proper health care for them, and the resources to get them on a different path, … I think that we’re going to have a better community than that old way of the revolving door, arrest, jail, arrest, jail, and never getting anything resolved,” said Kirk Wheatley, the newly hired Aspen Police Department human services officer.

He’s been in law enforcement for nearly two decades and just transitioned to the human services role; he said his own training was an “eye opener” to a way of policing that focused less on arrests and more on understanding.

“I think it’s just continual education,” Wheatley said. “I believe the more that we educate ourselves on the people that we’re really dealing with out there, probably the less calls we will have as a department and the less people will be thrown in jail that … shouldn’t be in jail to begin with.”

These co-response programs are “community policing at its finest,” said Jenny Wood, the director of criminal justice services in Colorado’s Office of Behavioral Health.

She sees three positive outcomes from the growing popularity of such initiatives: “It’s going to increase officer satisfaction, community satisfaction. … and divert people from getting involved with the criminal justice system when they really just need health care.”

“It really brings people back to why they became police officers,” Wood said.

Programs vary from community to community. But at the core are two components: on-scene support and after-the-fact follow-ups to ensure individuals get help and support beyond the moment of an immediate crisis.

The resources from PACT have been “tremendous,” said Aspen Police Department’s Jerez, who frequently works with the mental health professionals supported by the program.

“Honestly, it would make this job so much more difficult if I didn’t have (mental health professionals) alongside me, because the reality is, we’re not mental health clinicians, we’re not mental health providers,” Jerez said. “We get a pretty good understanding (of mental health) just with time within the department, with our training, but to make those calls and pinpoint a diagnosis, let’s say, on an individual — it’s not something I’m qualified to do.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Data from the Pitkin Area Co-responder Team shows just how well a program like PACT can work when it combines trained officers with professional mental health workers.

Of the 259 behavioral health-related calls the team recorded in the first two quarters of 2021, nearly every event was addressed by an officer with mental health first aid or Crisis Intervention Team training and the vast majority of incidents — nearly 80% — were resolved on scene.

Most of the remainder were transferred to an emergency medical department and a small percentage were transferred to centers for substance use withdrawal management; there were zero reported critical incidents or arrests, according to reports provided by Jenny Lyons.

Plus, thanks to the follow-up baked into co-responder programs, some frequent callers to dispatch are dialing less often because they’re now connected to support systems that can better serve them through mental health challenges, said Colorado co-responder program manager Emily Richardson.

Between Basalt and Parachute, many agencies contract with Aspen Hope Center for support from the local nonprofit’s crisis clinicians. The nonprofit crisis center also supports survivors and first responders throughout the valley in the aftermath of critical incidents that involve serious injuries or fatalities and offers confidential counseling for first responders struggling with their own mental health.

Aspen Hope has been operating mobile crisis and co-response programs since 2010, years before other similar initiatives cropped up throughout the state, according to executive director Michelle Muething. (Whereas co-responder programs happen in tandem with law enforcement, the mobile crisis program offers standalone services under the Aspen Hope umbrella.)

Some early co-responder programs emerged in Colorado around 2013 and 2014, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the concept “went gangbusters” and began growing exponentially aided by state legislation, said the state’s co-responder program manager Emily Richardson.

Even so, “you can’t just put a policy on paper and say ‘bam, it’s implemented,’” Muething said. “It takes time and a whole lot of effort.”

Mental health professionals and first responders come from “two very different cultures,” Muething said. But once the cogs click into place, a strong connection between the groups helps ensure the success of the co-responder collaborations.

“Our partnerships and relationships are vital. … We know how to do this dance on-scene where they know when to let us step forward, we know when to step back and they step forward,” Muething said.

A “culture shift” in law enforcement

Richardson also sees another benefit to the co-responder collaboration: It just might be contributing to a positive “culture shift” in the way first responders view resilience and well-being by putting them in frequent, close contact with mental health professionals.

“Having a colleague close who is a therapist, who they can see is a fine person, isn’t psychoanalyzing them every second of the day and is knowledgeable about this stuff, I think that it just builds into the culture,” Richardson said.

Many of those who have been in the field for any extended period of time can attest to the challenges of the job and challenges — personal or professional — that come with seeking help.

Confidential peer support systems have been fundamental in the effort to shift the way first responders cope with the stressors of a job that can and does involve facing traumatic situations head-on. The programs allow first responders to get support without fear that they’ll be misunderstood or that disclosing their mental health struggles could jeopardize their job; some agencies contract with Aspen Hope Center for those programs.

Aspen Hope has a couple of staffers, Muething included, who can bring their understanding of first responders to debriefs and counseling sessions with local agencies. Several departments also contract with Code-4 Counseling, an organization that specializes in mental health support for first responders.

Support for — and participation in — these programs comes from those in the highest ranks. Vallario said he believes “you have to have support from the top;” Knott said that when the officer check-in program began at Basalt Police Department, he was “the first one through the door.”

“In my career, 25 years prior to that I had never walked through that door to speak with a trained person, and it was incredibly beneficial, and it was incredibly helpful, and I continue to go today,” Knott said.

The tides are changing now, flowing toward a law enforcement culture that is now more open to the idea of seeking mental health support, Knott said.

“We don’t do what has been historically done in law enforcement in my career of, you know, just go to the call and go home,” Knott said. “We really worry about the mental health, we really take that seriously of our officers and our deputies.”

And at the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, the agency has hosted a multi-day “mental body armor” seminar twice in the past five years to highlight the importance of seeking help, Vallario said.

Teaming up

Law enforcement agencies are hardly alone in their embrace of mental health resources and support.

It’s a collaborative effort among public safety agencies in the valley who are equipping their first responders with the tools to help themselves and others when it comes to mental health, officials emphasize. It’s not uncommon for dispatchers, paramedics, firefighters and police officers to deal with the same difficult calls, and the teams will debrief together afterward, said Chief Scott Thompson from the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority.

At Roaring Fork Fire, mental health crisis support is a section of the standard paramedic curriculum, according to Thompson. And those “CIT 2.0” trainings offered by PACT this week were open to upvalley law enforcement as well as other community partners like the Roaring Fork Fire and the Aspen Fire Department, according to mental health program administrator Jenny Lyons.

There is likewise support and advocacy for mental health resources for first responders themselves.

“I’ve been very vocal about it, and I think the people that lead our peer support within our department are very vocal about it,” Thompson said. “You know, none of us are tough-skinned enough that nothing will bother us. We all realize that we’re all human, and we’re going to get bothered because we see things that we shouldn’t see, we experience things that we shouldn’t experience.”

Like Vallario and Knott, Thompson also sees a shift in the way first responders address mental health.

“All those things are learning pieces and parts that bring us to making sure that our people are supported, and that what happened to us in the past doesn’t happen to the new generation of firefighters and paramedics and the police officers,” Thompson said.

When Vallario started his law enforcement career more than three decades ago, there was no support system for first responders coping with trauma; the mentality was that “you’re bulletproof and you can’t be affected by this,” he said.

“What happens is, we deal with these traumatic events that, being human, affect us too,” Vallario said. “There’s nothing in our training that makes us numb to these things.”

He has seen firsthand the consequences that come from that mentality and from the barriers — time, resistance, embarrassment, fear, a lack of resources — that accompany it.

“We say we put it on the shelf,” he said. “OK, then something else happens, we put it on the shelf, and whether that’s a three-year, five-year, 20-year thing, eventually your shelf breaks, and that’s when we start losing law enforcement officers to substance abuse, gambling, divorce, suicide, because we weren’t able to intervene at the time we should have intervened.”

The way Vallario sees it, a culture shift that embraces mental health is indicative not only of the attitudes within law enforcement agencies but also of a willingness from lawmakers to create the financial backing and legislation for something that “wouldn’t have even been a topic 10 or 15 years ago.”

“It’s snowballing,” Vallario said.

And it’s happening outside the world of law enforcement just as much as it is within the field, according to Aspen Police Department Assistant Police Chief Linda Consuegra.

“We all want to think that we’re strong, we don’t need any help,” Consuegra said. “And I think hopefully with our support program, the check-ins, we start to normalize that. And it’s just having conversations, right? … This is the struggle that everyone has.”

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Dialing in

If someone is an immediate risk to themselves or others, call 911.

Additional crisis support is available via the Aspen Hope Center and Colorado Crisis Services.

Aspen Hope Center: Call 970-925-5858 for the Aspen Hopeline or 970-945-3728 for the Garfield Hopeline.

Colorado Crisis Services: Call 844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Survivor calls suicide attempt ‘the greatest mistake of my life’

Suicide attempt survivor Kevin Hines stands on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In the 21 years since his attempt, Hines has traveled across the country to speak about his experience.
Kevin Hines/Courtesy photo

“I jumped.”

“It was the single worst action of my entire life,” Kevin Hines said. “The millisecond my hands left the rail, I had an instantaneous regret for my actions. It’s 100% recognition that I had just made the greatest mistake of my life, and it was too late.”

Hines is one of fewer than 40 people who have survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge and one of fewer than 10 who have regained full mobility. Since his suicide attempt in 2000, Hines has built a career on sharing his story in the hope that others struggling with mental health issues find solace in the fact that they aren’t alone and that help awaits them.

But it’s a lifetime of seeking help that has gotten Hines to where he is today.

The Longevity Project


The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to drive discussion about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year’s project focuses on mental health. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times are partnering over the next month, and we will explore topics in mental health including resources (Aug. 26), substance use (Sept. 3), suicide prevention (Sept. 9) and law enforcement (this story).

Our project culminates with a panel discussion at noon Sept. 20 in Rifle or at 6 p.m. on Zoom (formerly in Aspen) with local leaders and speaker Kevin Hines. For more information or to register for the local events, go to PostIndependent.com/longevity.

An award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker and suicide prevention and mental health advocate, Hines has reached millions with his story of an unlikely survival. Two years after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, thousands of people have tried to kill themselves by leaping. Only 34 have lived, and he is one of them.

Due to a high COVID-19 transmission rate in Pitkin County, the evening event that originally had been set for in-person will be free and hosted virtually on Zoom; registration is still required and donations are encouraged.

Attendees who purchased tickets for the Aspen event may contact Samantha Johnston at sjohnston@aspentimes.com for a full refund. If a refund is not requested, the donated funds will be used to help offset the speaker fee.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Hines said his mental health issues stem from a traumatic infancy, in which he had a difficult home life and his brother died. Hines said he developed abandonment issues and a severe detachment disorder.

At 9 months old, he was fostered by the Hines family, which later adopted him when he was 4 years old. Hines credits them with saving his life.

“They gave me a future and stability and opportunity,” he said. “Growing up in the Hines household was a beautiful thing. We wanted nor needed for anything, all because of how hard (they) worked.”

In his new home, life was much more stable than with his birth parents, who he said sold drugs just to put a roof over their heads. But the lingering effects of his previous environment coupled with genetics continued to impact Hines as he grew up.

Throughout the years, Hines had ups and downs and said mental health issues were always present. At 17, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder — the same diagnosis he said his birth parents received — with psychotic features. Hines said he had manic highs and dark depressions, paranoid delusions, hallucinations and panic attacks.

Before his diagnosis, Hines called himself an eclectic teenager who had many interests. He was a skilled wrestler, played on the football team and participated in his school’s theater department.

“I really enjoyed life, and I was thoroughly excited for what was to come,” he said. “And then at 17 1/2, it all kind of came crashing down, and I developed a mental illness.”

Hines said his family started to pick up on signs that he might have a mental illness, but they didn’t know what to do about it.

“I was not telling anybody how severe my symptoms were, so I would see things and hear things that no one else could see or hear,” Hines said. “I kept it to myself. I would have paranoid delusions, and I wouldn’t tell anybody.”

Shortly after an outburst at school, Hines said his mother took him to see his first psychiatrist. Hines said the next two years were a “rocky road” as he tried to find medicine and a dosage that could help.

Leading up to the moment on the bridge, Hines said he felt self-loathing and heard voices telling him he had to die. On Sept. 25, 2000, at 19 years old, Hines jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.

After the U.S. Coast Guard pulled him from the water with a broken back and other serious injuries, Hines began a long, intensive road to recovery, both physically and mentally.

In the 21 years since his attempt, he has continued to seek out care with a new psychiatrist. He’s also been admitted into a psychiatric hospital nine times, with the latest stay in 2019.

Kevin Hines speaks at Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Since his suicide attempt in 2000, Hines has traveled the country to speak about his experience with mental health.
Kevin Hines/Courtesy photo

About six months after his attempt, Hines began publicly speaking to others about his experience. The first time was at his former school, where he spoke to more than 100 seventh and eighth grade kids.

“I still had my back brace and my cane,” Hines said about injuries he suffered in the fall. “I read a speech from the page, dropping page by page to the floor, crying and shaking the whole time. It was very raw.”

If you go

What: The Longevity Project with speaker Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor and mental health advocate. The talk will be preceded by a discussion about mental health with Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, Building Hope director Jen McAtamney, parent Heather Gard and Centura Health behavioral health director Doug Muir.

When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 21

Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge

Tickets: $25 at SummitDaily.com/longevity

When he was finished, the students asked him questions, and he felt like he made an impact. That impact was evident when he got a call shortly thereafter from the school asking him to visit again. Awaiting him were 120 letters from students thanking him for presenting. Some students even wrote that they were having thoughts of suicide, and those kids were screened and given the help they needed.

It is a moment that sticks with Hines years later.

“It feels amazing,” he said. “It was the first time I spoke, and it had that kind of an impact. My dad looked at me when he read the letters, and he said, ‘Kevin, we have to do this however, wherever possible.’ And we never stopped.”

By 2008, Hines turned his speaking engagements into a full-time job. He stays busy by traveling the country speaking about mental health and his personal experience. He continues to hear from audience members about how sharing his story has kept them from attempting suicide and encouraged them to seek help. By 2017, he was speaking more than 300 times per year.

In addition to coordinating speaking engagements, he has written a memoir titled “Cracked, Not Broken: Surviving and Thriving After a Suicide Attempt” and produced a documentary called “Suicide: The Ripple Effect.” He’s currently working on a new graphic novel called “Hope Dealers” as well as producing a docuseries called “The Journey.”

Hines is speaking at an event capping The Longevity Project at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 21, at the Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave. in Breckenridge. Tickets are $25 and include a glass of wine, beer or soda, and food. For tickets and more information, visit SummitDaily.com/longevity.

Suicide does not discriminate in Roaring Fork, Colorado river valleys

Peer support coach Vanessa Lane works from her desk at Mind Springs Health in Glenwood Springs.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Pitkin and Garfield counties share some bleak trends.

More than 120 deaths by suicide occurred between 2015 and into 2021 within these Western Slope neighbors, according to data compiled by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Garfield and Pitkin county coroners.

“It doesn’t matter how pretty it is where you live or how much money you have,” Pitkin County Chief Deputy Coroner and Investigator Audra Keith said. “I think that people have problems everywhere and struggle with mental health, and stuff that goes on in the world definitely affects people’s mental well being.”

Throughout Colorado, 7,295 people have died by suicide between 2015 and 2020 (2021 numbers are not yet available).

The Centennial State saw 1,294 deaths by suicide in 2020, or roughly 22.47 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people.

In the same year, Garfield County saw 31.64 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people. Pitkin County saw 22.51 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people.

The Longevity Project


The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to drive discussion about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year’s project focuses on mental health. The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent are partnering over the next month and we will explore topics in mental health including resources (Aug. 26), substance use (Sept. 3), suicide prevention (today) and law enforcement (Sept. 17).

Our project culminates with events Sept. 20 in Aspen (6 p.m.) and Rifle (noon) with a panel discussion of local leaders and speaker Kevin Hines. An award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker, and suicide prevention and mental health advocate, Hines has reached millions with his story of an unlikely survival. Two years after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, thousands of people have tried to kill themselves by leaping. Only 34 have lived and he is one of them. For more information or to register for the local events, go to aspentimes.com/longevity.

Yet one inspiration drives everyone toward wellness: hope.

The tenacity of hope is proven through the stories from those who’ve lived it.

They come from all over the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys. Personal stories of overcoming depression, isolation, anxiety and instrumenting the dark experience as octane to help as many people as they can.

Helping to create such outcomes are the professionals, specialists and volunteers of Garfield and Pitkin counties. They’re on the front lines combating what seems to be an endless, oftentimes invisible war destroying many people’s lives.

Their underlying message?

Reach out, talk to someone, understand that it’s OK to seek help. The fight is well worth it.

‘TELLTALE SIGN’

Glenn Lee started giving away all his possessions. Anything that meant something to him was gifted to someone else.

“That was a huge telltale sign that something was not right,” said his daughter, Vanessa Lane.

Then, two days before the birth of his first granddaughter, the 45-year-old Lee took his own life, and then Lane found herself fatherless at the age of 21.

“There is an incredible sadness that takes over,” said Lane, who grew up in Denver and moved to the Roaring Fork Valley when she was 28. “There is self-blame. Could we have done more, and what did we not do right?”

Now a peer recovery coach with Mind Springs Health in Glenwood Springs and a sitting member of the Zero Suicide Committee, Lane uses her own harrowing experiences with suicide to prevent it from happening to someone else.

Though the tragic event in Lane’s life birthed self-isolation as she spent the next 10 years battling anxiety and depression, the power of conversation prevailed.

Peer support coach Vanessa Lane at Mind Springs Health in Glenwood Springs.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

It started with her mother.

“My mother was always someone I talked to about this,” Lane said. “When people die with the idea of this as their only solution, it hurts my heart. I was thinking that I was gonna take what I was suffering from when I was a kid, and I just want to talk about it and talk about it.”

Lane said face to face conversations with other people who are suffering makes a difference.

“You’re worth talking about,” she said. “Let’s talk about why you feel this way.”

HOW TO HELP

Major signs of suicide contemplation

• Isolation

• Erratic, uncharacteristic behavior

• Mentioning suicide in conversation

• Vocalizing self-negativity

Initiating the conversation

Starting a conversation with someone you suspect is going through a tough time shouldn’t just start with the question, Are you OK?

Garfield County Suicide Prevention Coalition Chair Mason Hohstadt said the person being asked could reply, “I’m fine,” and that’s that.

Instead, use observation to your advantage. If someone you know isn’t participating in normal, daily activities, ask about that. If someone you know is doing something uncharacteristic, ask about that.

You haven’t been out mountain biking with me in awhile, why is that? You’re drinking or using more drugs, why is that? You’ve missed church the past five Sundays, why is that?

“‘I’m worried about this for you,’” Hohstadt said. “Then you can move that conversation to, ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’”

When it comes to exhibiting signs in relation to suicide, no one fits into the same category and nobody suffers from the same thing, Lane said.

People do, however, commonly share one action when they’re in the midst of suffering: prolonged, uninterrupted isolation.

Oftentimes, Lane said it’s especially men who struggle in seeking help. They either fear the stigma or simply do not trust the counselor with the information.

But there are other signs to look for.

In Lane’s experience, when someone casually brings up suicide in conversation, that’s a red flag worthy of intervention.

“I think just somebody even talking about it or threatening, whether it’s to get attention, it doesn’t matter what it is,” she said. “That is enough of a red flag to have that conversation.”

In addition to talking about suicide, exhibiting risky, out-of-character behavior or vocalizing self-negativity also deserve a helping hand, Lane said.

Because the grief never ends, Lane said. It’s always there.

“But I feel like if you can get out and help someone else that is suffering, it makes it better… it makes it better,” she said. “The sense of missing them never goes away, but getting out there and doing something makes a world of difference.”

PRACTICING THE DISCIPLINE

Allison Daily is well acquainted with loss.

Daily’s brother, Rod Snyder, died by suicide in 1990. At 24, she was the one to receive the phone call, and she was the one who relayed the news to her parents.

Daily said this tragedy is a big reason why she’s director of Pathfinders, a nonprofit focused on helping people during times of grief and loss.

LOCAL DEATHS

Number of deaths by suicide in Pitkin, Garfield counties between 2015 to 2021:

Garfield County

2021: 10

2020: 14

2019: 24

2018: 19

2017: 10

2016: 12

2015: 11

Total: 100

Pitkin County

2021: 2

2020: 4

2019: 6

2018: 0

2017: 7

2016: 0

2015: 3

Total: 22

She’s facing that prospect of loss again now. Her father isn’t doing well. His heart is starting to go out. Doctors recently put him on a pacemaker and defibrillator. Meanwhile, Daily’s husband, Art, died in December 2020.

And Daily’s mother has macular degeneration. She can’t see, making it difficult for her to care for her ailing husband.

Daily said she was the one to initiate an end-of-life conversion with him. They discussed funeral services and various loose ends.

“It’s a discipline in what I do,” she said. “I’ve had to really practice what I talked to others about and really go deep. Actually, what’s beautiful about it is that it’s enabled me to be able to help and support so many people on a deeper level than I ever have been able to.”

Daily puts these heartfelt skills to work with the bereaved after a suicide occurs.

Her motivation is for people to not run from their feelings but to process what’s taken place, she said. Because when Snyder took his own life, Daily said she ran away from her feelings for a while.

“There’s usually guilt involved. There’s people who saw the person last, or they had the last conversation or they had a fight beforehand, so they feel that responsibility,” Daily said. “I don’t try to take those feelings away, because people’s feelings are real. But what I try to do is help them process into where they can get to a place where they’re more comfortable.”

Processing involves talking about the relationship the bereaved had with that person, Daily said.

It can give them an avenue for forgiveness, Daily said, and for “trying to help them to take steps forward to live from a place of loving themselves and honoring that person, instead of staying in the anger.”

Suicide elicits strong feelings, Daily said — ones that can come to a head when they’re bottled up.

“We have such judgment around mental illness or mental conditions,” she said. “But for myself and my brother, I started to really understand where he was at. Did that make it OK that he did that? No. But at least now I understand more of where he was coming from and why he made that decision.”

“It’s a really lonely existence when we do that,” she said. “When we bottle things up and we don’t talk with someone or we don’t get the help that we need, then it just leaves room for really disastrous or explosive decisions.”

CURBING THE TRENDS

Mason Hohstadt is preparing for something big: The Out of the Darkness Western Slope Walk.

The fundraiser, done in correlation with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is slated for Sept. 25 in Glenwood Springs. Registration is 9 a.m. and groups will begin walking at 10 a.m. People can also register online.

Anyone is invited to come to the Glenwood Springs Community Center and walk for something that has affected many people throughout the Western Slope. The route comprises Midland Avenue and walking over the pedestrian bridge.

“We utilize those dollars to get more people trained to give those types of training and education out into the community,” said Hohstadt, chair of the Garfield County Suicide Prevention Coalition. “Most of the time, most of the people who walk are survivors of loss.”

Sept. 25 will also see Aspen host a similar fundraising event: Hike, Hope, Heal. Late registration starts at 10 a.m. at Mollie Gibson Park. The walk begins at 11 a.m.

Additional race information can be found at aspenstrong.org/hike-hope-heal.

Garfield County Suicide Prevention Coalition started in 2006 to “meet the ever-increasing number of suicides that happened in Garfield County,” Hohstadt said.

The effort was something Hohstadt felt compelled to join based on personal experience.

“I’ve been thinking about this the past couple days,” he said. “I have mental health struggles on my own. I have been feeling isolated, feeling left behind — all of those things.”

Hohstadt, a former public health worker in Denver who devoted academic and grad school work to researching HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis C, is driven by a passion to help others.

This is especially true when it comes to suicide.

Hohstadt said the coalition is working on an individual level to help people understand the resources available — and access them.

“One in five people are going to have a mental health challenge in their life,” he said. “That’s a very conservative number; 70 million people in this country will have a mental health challenge or issue in their lifetime.”

“So,” Hohstadt added, “how do we as public health (organizations), which does have a focus and a framework for helping population level, get to a place where we can really move the needle to help people understand?”

The work, however, never ends, Hohstadt said. The mission is to make the shift from the idea of being an outcome organization to a more holistic approach.

“All of these things are interconnected,” he said. “The work will never end it, but it probably will not always look like it does right now.”

SEEKING HELP

Note: Resources taken from a mental health map available on AspenStrong.org

Counseling, therapy, case management

Aspen Strong

• How to get help: Call 970-718-2842 or visit AspenStrong.org.

Mountain Family Health Center

• How to get help: Call 945-2840 or visit MountainFamily.org.

Mind Springs Health

• How to get help: Call the Aspen office at 970-920-5555 or the Glenwood Springs office at 970-945-2583. Also, visit MindSpringsHealth.org.

24-hour hotlines

Colorado Crisis services

• Call 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.

Hope Center

• Aspen: 970-925-5858

• Eagle: 970-306-4673

• Garfield: 970-945-3728

Grief and loss

• Pathfinders: 970-925-1226

Child and family

• Aspen Family connections: 970-205-7025

Family Resource Center

• Roaring Fork office: 970-384-9500

• Parachute: 970-285-5701

Servicios en español

Mind Springs Health

• Aspen office: 970-920-5555

• Glenwood Springs office: 970-945-2583

Mountain Family Health Centers

• Call 970-945-2840

Aspen Strong

• Directorio de terapeutas: 970-718-2842

Discovery Cafe

• Call 719-650-5978 and speak with Gabe Cohen.

• Email Cohen at gabe@discoverycafe.org.

• Visit DiscoveryCafe.org.

• Visit Discovery Cafe at the Colorado Mountain College Rifle campus at 3695 Airport Road, Rifle.

West Mountain Regional Health Alliance

• Call 970-429-6186

• Visit WestMountainHealthAlliance.org/covid/

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com

Combating a ‘disease of isolation’ with community in recovery

A large crowd gathers around as people talk about their shared experiences with overdose at Crown Mountain Park during the Overdose Awareness Day event in El Jebel on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

 

Keir Gallik can draw a straight line between his mental health history and substance use.

“I think that the mental health issues came first. I think they kind of came at a young age where maybe I wasn’t even aware enough to recognize them or put a label on them,” said Gallik, an Aspen Strong board member who is now more than five-and-a-half years sober and living in Aspen. “They just felt as if something wasn’t quite right, and I found, at least in my case, that I had found relief in alcohol and drugs and doing what I was doing — that worked.”

Until it didn’t.

The roots of it — anxiety and accumulating traumas — were still present, and the temporary relief gained from substance use started to diminish, according to Gallik. After a few other go-arounds with in-patient treatment elsewhere, he landed at Jaywalker Lodge, a Carbondale addiction treatment center for men.

That program (which he completed, then stayed on as a staffer for a couple of years) and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous were instrumental in his recovery.

“What it did was just bring me back to a place where I could fully engage in life and, you know, be there for all the ups and the downs,” Gallik said.

 

The Longevity Project


The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to drive discussion about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year’s project focuses on mental health. The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent are partnering over the next month and we will explore topics in mental health including resources (Aug. 26), substance use (today), suicide prevention (Sept. 10) and law enforcement (Sept. 17).

Our project culminates with events Sept. 20 in Aspen (6 p.m.) and Rifle (noon) with a panel discussion of local leaders and speaker Kevin Hines. An award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker, and suicide prevention and mental health advocate, Hines has reached millions with his story of an unlikely survival. Two years after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, thousands of people have tried to kill themselves by leaping. Only 34 have lived and he is one of them. For more information or to register for the local events, go to aspentimes.com/longevity.

Gallik is hardly alone. Far more often than not, substance use is intrinsically intertwined with mental health challenges: the two are “co-occurring” in the majority of clients who turn to recovery resource center A Way Out, said the nonprofit’s executive director, Elizabeth Means.

“They go very much hand in hand, and I think it’s human nature to want to try to fix it, like, ‘OK, I’m not feeling right, what do I need?’” Means said.

Addiction recovery professionals and those in recovery themselves agree that it is rarely if ever a “one or the other” situation.

“It’s kind of like what came first, the chicken or the egg? There’s a major connection,” said MaryMike Haley, the clinical director for Aspire Recovery for Women, a Carbondale-based treatment center.

It is common for someone living with addiction to also have anxiety or depression, according to Haley; they may also be coping with trauma, or living with a “complex mental health issue” like bipolar disorder or attention deficit disorder, she said.

Those mental health conditions don’t go away when a person enters into recovery from addiction — just the opposite, sometimes, Haley said.

“When you take away drugs and alcohol, those things tend to become exacerbated, right?” Haley said. “Because their No. 1 coping mechanism to tamp down the mental health issues that are popping up — you don’t have that anymore.”

Over time, though, and with the right recovery resources, that pendulum starts to swing back to center, said Patrick Shaffer, the chief of admissions and marketing at Jaywalker Lodge.

“We see, in some cases, that (co-occurring mental health condition) be at a diagnostic level where they need continued support, through an entire treatment process, and something that they will continue to live with, and we also see it be linked directly to time away from substance use, so we can see anxiety and depression dissipate over time as somebody has more clean and sober time,” Shaffer said.

“It’s sort of not a chicken-or-an-egg conversation anymore,” added Stefan Bate, Jaywalker’s chief of clinical operations. “It’s the chicken and the egg together.”

Co-occurring conditions are “the expectation now — it’s not the exception,” Bate said, and Jaywalker’s treatment plan takes that into account with integrated treatment.

“Doing really responsible, good mental health work, trauma work and addiction work is essential, because if someone has untreated mental health or trauma, that’s going to be their biggest precipitator to a relapse in substances,” Bate said. “And vice versa: If somebody is really struggling primarily with mental health, but they’re continuing to use substances, their outcomes for their mental health disorder are going to be … pretty poor.”

That line of thinking wasn’t always the norm in recovery, according to Bate and others in the field.

“Historical treatment really separated it: You looked at addiction treatment, you looked at mental health treatment, and you didn’t do them in a co-occurring sort of integrated way,” he said.

When Haley got sober 32 years ago at the age of 18, “there was not an awareness of the connection between trauma, mental health and addiction,” she said. So much so that she was told not to unpack some of her childhood trauma in the early stages of recovery because she was too young and because it might cause a relapse.

That’s not the case now, and certainly not at Aspire, which takes a “whole person” approach to recovery.

“That format within the addiction recovery community has completely changed, right, that we really need to address mental health stuff, that we really need to address trauma,” Haley said, “because the symptoms of dealing with those issues — I think one of the symptoms is addiction.”

Maggie Seldeen, founder and executive director of High Rockies Harm Reduction, poses for a portrait at Crown Mountain Park during the Overdose Awareness Day event in El Jebel on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. “I do this work as a child of the valley in the hopes that people don't have to have the same experiences that I did. And if they do, at least they don't have to go through it alone and be criminalized by the system like I was,” Seldeen said in an interview. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Maggie Seldeen, founder and executive director of High Rockies Harm Reduction in Carbondale, shares that view. It isn’t just mental health itself; stressors including housing and job insecurity are compounding challenges for those seeking recovery.

“My belief is that substance use is a symptom and not the cause,” Seldeen said. “I believe that it is, more often than not, the symptom of underlying mental health issues that have not been effectively taken care of, and so I think that if we can help people achieve stability in their housing, in their profession, in their families, and help them address these really mental health issues, then we can start seeing behavioral change.”

Seldeen’s work with High Rockies Harm Reduction focuses on alleviating harm rather than exclusively seeking sobriety; initiatives include syringe access services, peer support and training on how to administer Narcan, a life-saving nasal spray that can treat opioid overdoses in emergency situations.

The goal is to keep people safe, one of many components to what Seldeen sees as a layered approach to substance use and mental health resources.

“When you have something to live for, then you have a reason to address your needs and your issues. … If we can give people the support and mental health services that they need, and that are going to be relevant to them, I think that that can really help with these substance use issues or addiction issues,” Seldeen said.

Trickle-down effect

Aspen has an outsized reputation for substance use. And the atmosphere of a play-hard, then play-even-harder culture in Aspen goes well beyond the roundabout, according to Seldeen.

“There’s a trickle-down effect from the party culture,” Seldeen said.

Seldeen observed that the normalization of substance use in Aspen — especially in the restaurant industry, where the use of drugs and alcohol are particularly prevalent, she said — can flow downvalley to Carbondale or Rifle or Parachute when workers head home at the end of the day.

But an abundance of recovery and harm-reduction resources in Pitkin County doesn’t flow with it, Seldeen said.

“(In Aspen), it’s viewed as not having consequences because the people using (substances) have resources, and that’s a really important point right there is that, just because you’re a millionaire doesn’t mean you’re not using heroin or cocaine, right?” Seldeen said. “It means you have the resources to do it in a safe environment.”

That “trickle down effect” doesn’t necessarily mean that usage is the same throughout the valley, though.

The Roaring Fork Valley is no monolith. The culture surrounding substance use — and what substances are used — can vary from Aspen to Parachute or even between neighboring towns like Aspen and Snowmass Village or Rifle and Silt, according to Seldeen.

“I see how some of our communities have resources that the others don’t and vice versa, and so there’s a lot of traveling that goes on to access the right services, right?” Seldeen said.

Pitkin County Public Health’s booth is set up alongside others to provide information on mental health and substance use resources at Crown Mountain Park during the Overdose Awareness Day event in El Jebel on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Means, whose work with A Way Out focuses in part on filling the financial gaps in mental health and recovery access throughout the valley, said she sees a greater need for resources down in Garfield County than she sees in Pitkin County.

“There’s more (people) needing resources the further downvalley we move,” Means said. “Mental illness is a pretty equitable disease that affects everybody no matter where you live, but definitely, they need more financial resources (downvalley).”

Financial challenges can complicate matters for people seeking clinical recovery resources, too. Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups are free, but clinical inpatient treatment and some outpatient therapy doesn’t come cheap.

Insurance providers and Medicaid don’t always cover every program, including those specialized programs that might be the best fit for the individual, Means said.

Even then, the long approval process for those on Medicaid can lead to precious recovery time spent in limbo, waiting for the green light to get help, according to Means.

“It can take months to get into it,” Means said. “And a lot of times, people don’t have a month, right?”

‘The fight is all the same’

Money and insurance aren’t the only — or even the primary — barriers standing between people and the mental health and substance use support they need. A fear of judgment can be a major hurdle to clear, said Jenny Lyons, a mental health program administrator with Pitkin County Public Health.

“The sum total of it is that what we call stigma is keeping people from getting the help that they need,” Lyons said in an interview with Chelsea Carnoali, a Pitkin County mental health analyst.

Regional public health groups are working to counter that by developing messaging campaigns that focus on normalizing getting help for mental health concerns, Lyons and Carnoali said.

“It’s so interesting how our little Aspen bubble culture does fit into what our version of stigma looks like,” Carnoali said.

A lot of the work lies in reminding people that it’s OK to not be OK in a place where so many others come to escape; belonging and community in a resort town are part of the equation for places like Aspen, too.

“People (are) coming to our area, (saying it’s) so beautiful, and we should all be happy, alongside the very clear gap in income and a very clear gap of privilege or availability of resources and what that also does to mental health and sense of belonging,” Carnoali said.

The fact is that mental health struggles and substance use can happen to anyone, said Gabe Cohen, who runs the Discovery Cafe resource center in Rifle and has been in recovery from addiction since 2018.

“It doesn’t matter what county or town or city you’re in, you know,” he said. “The issues, the trauma, the struggle, the fight is all the same. … it doesn’t really matter whether you are in rural America or, you know, ritzy Aspen, Colorado — addiction’s addiction.”

Cohen sees Discovery Cafe as a “recovery community center” with a broad definition of recovery that extends beyond addiction to include trauma, homelessness, incarceration and other challenges.

“We want everyone to know that they are loved and valued, and we leave any judgment at the door,” he said.

Connecting through lived experience

Ashley Adams thanks individuals and community members for coming out for the Overdose Awareness Day event in El Jebel on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Adams also shared her story as a loved one of someone dealing with addiction; her sister was in recovery for three years before dying of an accidental fentanyl overdose. Nearly a dozen other speakers also shared their lived experience at the event. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The sense of community and belonging can be a make-or-break component to recovery, according to resource providers. It’s one that the Roaring Fork Valley is uniquely positioned to provide through outdoor recreation; the connections forged on the trails and slopes of the region can help counter what some addiction treatment professionals consider to be a disease of isolation.

“That is without doubt, I would say, the biggest struggle that people face in early to mid-term recovery is that struggle with finding community without, you know, substances or partying,” said Gallik, the Jaywalker Lodge alumnus.

Here, he has been able to find that, partly because of Jaywalker’s emphasis on outdoor recreation. Gallik, who grew up spending time outside in his hometown of Bozeman, Montana, said Jaywalker reconnected him with the outdoors and placed him in a community of like-minded peers; it was a “game-changer.”

“I was able to see people that I respected and people that I got along with really well who were doing well and who were striving to be better people and get sober and live their life,” Gallik said. “That made me think, ‘Wow, I could do that too, that’s achievable.’ It really kind of put a familiar face on this idea of getting better.”

Lived experience and peer-to-peer connection can make a world of difference in addiction treatment and recovery, High Rockies Harm Reduction’s Seldeen said.

“If we can just build trusting, compassionate relationships with people, that’s how we can get them into the services they need,” she said.

And it can be just as valuable for people who know loved ones who are dealing with addiction, said photographer Cath Adams. Her daughter Emily was in recovery for three years before she died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2020.

“You don’t want anybody to ever go through this,” Adams said in a joint interview with her younger daughter Ashley in their backyard in El Jebel. “And you don’t have your last goodbyes. You wake up one morning and your child’s gone, and you just really want to — you become very passionate.”

Cath founded Aperture of Hope about a decade ago as a way to help youth engage with the outdoors and face life’s challenges through what she calls “awareness photography.” It has since evolved into a peer support, recovery coaching and resource hub for those dealing with substance use.

Ashley is involved, too; the Glenwood Springs High School senior organized an Overdose Awareness Day event at Crown Mountain Park on Aug. 31 with speakers who shared their lived experience, music, an honor walk, resource booths and a training led by Seldeen on how to administer Narcan.

Maggie Seldeen holds out a box containing two Narcan nasal spray doses while demonstrating how to utilize it at Crown Mountain Park during the Overdose Awareness Day event in El Jebel on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Seldeen, whose own mother died of an overdose, said in an interview that she hopes to get more Narcan into the community and get more people comfortable with using it in an emergency situation to prevent overdose deaths. “It's just this fear, people are afraid of doing the wrong thing. People are afraid of being liable. It's just, there's a lot on the line when a life is in your hands. … If we had had this drug, when I was a teenager, we could have saved my mother and so many other people's lives,” she said. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Awareness was just one component; the event’s programming and that shared lived experience also countered that notion of a stigma surrounding substance use and mental health.

“I want the message to be known that people are more than their addiction, and everyone has a story,” Ashley said at the event. “Spreading awareness and talking about addiction should not be shameful, and everyone deserves to get the help they need; I want it to be known that you matter, no matter what others think, especially in the society we live in today.”

Ashley and Cath also planted purple flags at several locations throughout the valley this year and last to commemorate those who died of an overdose in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties; there were 52 at each location for the span of 2017-2019 last year and 72 for the span of 2017-2020 this year.

For Ashley, now entering senior year of high school without her older sister, the missed milestones are a reminder of an alternative path; her work over the last year has also strengthened her passion to help others, she said.

“She’s not going to be there when I graduate, so that’s hard, but I know everything she went through, I’m not doing the same, so in a way, she’s helped me, shown me what not to do,” she said.

The two hope their own lived experience can help others navigate the landscape of supporting a loved one with addiction and coping with the grief of losing someone to an overdose.

“I’ve seen it. I’ve been there. … I’ve learned a ton,” Cath said. “It just didn’t start when she took that pill and passed — everything before that, it was just a wealth of knowledge.”

‘Their life has meaning too’

An angel flag is set out alongside purple flags for Overdose Awareness Day at an event at Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The involvement has also been a way for Cath to find healing and purpose.

“I feel like I have found the meaning of life,” she said. “Now I just want everyone to feel, when they’re suffering, that their life has meaning, too.”

The healing process looks different for everyone: those in recovery, those coping with loss, those who want to support a loved one living with addiction.

It isn’t linear, either; Seldeen wants to emphasize that to those who may feel like a relapse or a misstep along the way puts them right back where they started.

“It’s so much harder to get back on that wagon … it doesn’t have to be this way, but it feels so much like you’re starting at square one, and you feel so powerless, and it can be so difficult to see that reality of sobriety in your own life,” she said.

But the resounding message from Seldeen and others in the recovery — aside from encouragement to seek and accept help — is that there is hope for the future.

“I had no idea how much I was going to love being sober,” said Seldeen, now two-and-a-half years sober. “I just knew how tired I was of being the person I had been, and it was super cool to meet this new person. … Being sober is like its own kind of high to me.”

SUBSTANCE USE AND RECOVERY RESOURCES

Meetings and Gathering Places

Colorado Alcoholics Anonymous District 14 (Glenwood Springs to Aspen, Vail to Parachute)

(970) 245-9649 or (888) 333-9649

coaadistrict14.org/meetings/

The Meeting Place (Carbondale)

981 Cowen Drive, Carbondale

meetingplacecarbondale.org/meetings-1

Narcotics Anonymous Mountain West Division (Aspen, Basalt, Breckenridge, Carbondale, Eagle, Glenwood Springs, Leadville, Rifle, Vail Valley)

nacolorado.org/mountainwest/MWMeetingList.pdf

970-306-6535

Therapists, Treatment Centers and Recovery Hubs

Aspen Strong Directory

directory.aspenstrong.org

Use the “Issues” category of the filter tool to see providers valley-wide who specialize in addiction, alcohol and substance use.

Narcan Access and Training

High Rockies Harm Reduction (Carbondale)

highrockiesharmreduction.com

In the event of an overdose emergency, call 911.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Longevity resources: Reaching the Latino community — and vice versa


Estrella Portillo knows seeking immediate mental health assistance in relation to the Latino community is a big challenge.

Portillo, a 28-year-old Latina who moved to the Roaring Fork Valley from Mexico when she was 12, encountered these challenges almost immediately.

“I have struggled with depression and anxiety for a long time,” she said. Though she realized and understood what these mental symptoms were, there was a seemingly impenetrable stigma attached to them. “Because in my family, if you have accepted that you have a mental illness, then you’re weak.”

The Glenwood Springs High School graduate said from adults to children, Latinos are reluctant to get the proper care and resources they need for any type of mental health issues, including substance abuse and suicide.

“I’m coming from a family of immigrants, and mental health is just nonexistent,” she said. “It’s something that’s not talked about in Latino families. We just brushed it under the rug.”

Portillo takes classes through Naropa University in Boulder, and has recently been researching ways to foster more mental health awareness among the Hispanic community of the Roaring Fork Valley. Her research has so far uncovered barriers such as neglect, access to health insurance and language leading to significant mental health challenges.

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to drive discussion about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year’s project focuses on mental health. The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post Independent are partnering over the next month, and we will explore topics in mental health including resources (today), substance abuse (Sept. 3), suicide prevention (Sept. 10) and law enforcement (Sept. 17).

Our project culminates with events Sept. 20 in Aspen (6 p.m.) and Rifle (noon) with a panel discussion of local leaders and speaker Kevin Hines. An award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker and suicide prevention and mental health advocate, Hines has reached millions with his story of an unlikely survival. Two years after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, thousands of people have tried to kill themselves by leaping. Only 34 have lived, and he is one of them. For more information or to register for the local events, go to www.aspentimes.com/longevity.

“They come here to work and have a better life for their families or themselves, and they’re running away from something major, whether it was a traumatic experience, violence, poverty,” she said. “And all they do here is work. … They don’t know how to give themselves the space and time to work on themselves emotionally.”

“They don’t feel like they have someone that they trust,” she added.

For some, there’s also a language barrier.

“I definitely think there’s a need for more bilingual professionals,” Portillo said. “And everywhere, from cops to nurses to therapists to social workers and just people that are spreading awareness — it’s not enough.”

Leslie Venegas is trying to alleviate this dilemma. The bilingual Latina runs the Celebrate Recovery program in New Castle and is a peer specialist at Mind Springs Health in Glenwood Springs.

“I see a lot of need from the Hispanic community, so I’ve encountered a lot of people that are in need of resources,” she said. “Either they’re not informed, or there are not many resources available to them.”

Venegas said there are simply more resources available to the English-speaking community.

“And there’s a lot of Hispanics that don’t speak English, or they don’t feel comfortable coming to somebody that doesn’t come from the same background as them, because we are a different culture,” she said.

Celebrate Recovery is a Christian-based, 12-step recovery program designed to help anyone struggling with “hurt, pain or addiction of any kind,” according to its mission stated online. Mind Springs Health, meanwhile, is Western Colorado’s largest provider of counseling and therapy for mental wellness.

Like Aspen Strong, Celebrate Recovery provides a 24/7 call-in service for people requesting immediate assistance, as well as additional treatment options. And with people like Venegas on the frontlines, it helps better reach the Latino community.

“I pretty much meet with people that are struggling with substance use disorder, or mental health,” Venegas said. “It’s kind of a support system to help them connect them to different people or support systems.”

“We’re a really good resource for people, because we’ve been there,” she added.

RESOURCES:

Note: Resources taken from a mental health map available on AspenStrong.org

Counseling, therapy, case management

Aspen Strong

• How to get help: Call 970-718-2842 or visit AspenStrong.org.

Mountain Family Health Center

• How to get help: Call 945-2840 or visit MountainFamily.org.

Mind Springs Health

• How to get help: Call the Aspen office at 970-920-5555 or the Glenwood Springs office at 970-945-2583. Also, visit MindSpringsHealth.org.

24-hour hotlines

Colorado Crisis services

• Call 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.

Hope Center

• Aspen: 970-925-5858

• Eagle: 970-306-4673

• Garfield: 970-945-3728

Grief and loss

• Pathfinders: 970-925-1226

Child and family

• Aspen Family connections: 970-205-7025

Family Resource Center

• Roaring Fork office: 970-384-9500

• Parachute: 970-285-5701

Servicios en español

Mind Springs Health

• Aspen office: 970-920-5555

• Glenwood Springs office: 970-945-2583

Mountain Family Health Centers

• Call 970-945-2840

Aspen Strong

• Directorio de terapeutas: 970-718-2842

Discovery Cafe

• Call 719-650-5978 and speak with Gabe Cohen.

• Email Cohen at gabe@discoverycafe.org.

• Visit DiscoveryCafe.org.

• Visit Discovery Cafe at the Colorado Mountain College Rifle campus at 3695 Airport Road, Rifle.

West Mountain Regional Health Alliance

• Call 970-429-6186

• Visit WestMountainHealthAlliance.org/covid/

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com.

As pandemic persists, mental health needs rise in Pitkin, Garfield counties

Discovery Cafe Executive Director Gabe Cohen offers feedback to a member at Monday afternoon's recovery circle meeting at the Colorado Mountain College Rifle Campus.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent
LONGEVITY PROJECT


The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to drive discussion about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year’s project focuses on mental health. The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent are partnering over the next month and we will explore topics in mental health including resources (today), substance use (Sept. 3), suicide prevention (Sept. 10) and law enforcement (Sept. 17).

Our project culminates with events Sept. 20 in Aspen (6 p.m.) and Rifle (noon) with a panel discussion of local leaders and speaker Kevin Hines. An award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker, and suicide prevention and mental health advocate, Hines has reached millions with his story of an unlikely survival. Two years after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, thousands of people have tried to kill themselves by leaping. Only 34 have lived and he is one of them. For more information or to register for the local events, go to www.aspentimes.com/longevity

“Frustration” is a word Gabe Cohen uses often when talking about the minefield of bureaucratic obstacles people must navigate in seeking help.

A lack of insurance is one pitfall, but it’s also the seemingly innocuous occurrences that lead to exasperation, saying “screw it” and walking out the door. Take it from Cohen, an ex-convict in recovery from addiction who is now executive director for Discovery Cafe in Rifle.

“You go to some of these mental health clinics and the first person you meet behind the counter isn’t a therapist,” Cohen said, “and if they’re busy and you get the cold shoulder, or they’re just not sympathetic in that moment and they hand you a clipboard and a stack of paperwork to fill out, some people shut down right there.”

Say someone fresh out of a correctional facility doesn’t have a job, doesn’t have health insurance and is required by the terms of probation or parole to complete drug treatment classes. Individuals like these are typically placed on Medicaid, a bare-bones safety net that still requires someone to jump through hoops to accomplish their mission.

“Before we can bill Medicaid, we have to send them to a therapist to get an assessment, which takes like an hour for the therapists to recommend that they have the drug treatment class, which is ordered by parole,” Cohen said.

Then they have to fill out an intake packet.

“So, these are two barriers before they’re even supposed to get into the class,” Cohen said. “I would say I lost about half the people just through that process.”

Discovery Cafe member Miranda Gowetski listens to feedback during the recovery circle meeting on Monday afternoon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The Discovery Cafe offers a holistic approach to helping homeless, addicted and disenfranchised individuals in Garfield County. The program hosts events on the Colorado Mountain College Rifle campus and welcomes those in need of mental health and substance abuse services as well as basic necessities, like obtaining your social security or identification card after being released from prison.

No money or insurance are needed.

Discovery Cafe Executive Director Gabe Cohen starts the recovery circle meeting on Monday afternoon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“We offer non-clinical, peer-to-peer support,” Cohen said. “If they need more than what we can offer, and they do need clinical services, you can certainly make those referrals to like a Mind Springs or a Mountain Family (Health Centers) — all the different support groups in the valley, whatever it may be.”

Of course, mental health organizations throughout the valleys do accept clients either devoid of insurance or on Medicaid. Cohen said there are times when it takes a client weeks to get an appointment because the workload is too backed up.

Discovery Cafe helps people connect with resources faster. The nonprofit’s staff — including a Spanish-speaking specialist — are experienced in trauma firsthand.

“I have a Spanish-speaking person on staff purposely, because I know the void is there, and it’s one of the biggest challenges,” Cohen said. “I went and spoke in front of Garfield County commissioners a couple weeks ago, asking for funds specifically to reach the Spanish-speaking community.”

Aaron Braaiz talks about his recovery at the Discovery Cafe recovery circle meeting on Monday afternoon at the Colorado Mountain College Rifle campus.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Discovery Cafe helps people maintain a weekly regimen. Amid a CMC classroom filled with boxes of pizza and snacks and pamphlets highlighting programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, groups usually meet for Bible study, recovery classes and more. There are also opportunities to do yoga and exercise in the campus gymnasium.

“I’m a person that was on (Supplemental Security Income), food stamps, Medicaid, worked with the Colorado Department of Vocational Rehab, to get myself off of SSI and Medicaid and into the workforce,” Cohen said.

“I navigated the system, and it wasn’t easy. But I can help people navigate through the system because I’ve been there. … That’s what we do.”

Gina Long offers feedback during the recovery circle meeting at Discovery Cafe on Monday afternoon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

HOUSING ISSUES

Despite a life expectancy rate outshining most other regions of the U.S., life in the Roaring Fork Valley has its challenges.

This includes domestic violence and sexual assault, said Response executive director Shannon Meyer, who leads the Aspen-based nonprofit resource center for survivors.

“Because we live in a privileged and lovely area with lots of things to do, people assume there’s no undercurrent of sexual assault and domestic violence,” she said. “Just because we live in a beautiful place doesn’t make it less likely to happen.”

Amid COVID-19, the need for the organization’s services grew, Meyer said.

“That’s something that’s echoed across the state and across the country,” she said. “There was at first a drop-off where people were just dealing with the immediate external crisis of the pandemic, and then having the extra stress of often having to isolate with their abuser caused a lot of new calls and more violence.”

As of Aug. 13, Response has served 123 new clients, compared with 150 new clients for all of 2020.

 

But throughout 2020, Response received 274 calls to its crisis helpline, while 2021 has so far seen just 179.

“In times of crisis, unhealthy relationships are going to get more strained than they were before with an added stress,” she said. “We’ve seen that in the number of calls to our crisis line and the number of clients coming to us needing help.”

A competitive housing market can make it even more difficult for survivors of domestic violence to leave their abuser.

“There’s lots of obstacles, and one of the biggest obstacles in this valley is housing,” Meyer said. “There’s a lot of fear, and it’s hard enough to afford housing as is, but if you’re sharing housing and housing costs with someone, and that’s the person you’re trying to get away from, how are you going to afford rent, find a place on your own?”

Housing woes can also weigh on one’s mental health and add to anxiety, stress, fear and more.

According to a 2018-22 Regional Community Health Assessment highlighting Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties, increase in rent alone “increases the incidence of anxiety and depression, as well as decreasing levels of control, and self-esteem.”

This is where Aspen Strong, another nonprofit organization providing a plethora of mental health services to clients throughout the Colorado and Roaring Fork River valleys, comes in.

For executive director Angilina Taylor, accommodating this greater need for mental health services is imperative.

“90% of people are more likely to actually follow through with therapy if they have a warm handoff” — an environment conducive to getting help, Taylor said. “And 70% of people are more likely to be active in their recovery if they have a sponsor. So our goal is to grow into being able to support people in the community that way.”

LAST CALL

When it comes to finding belonging, options are limited for the LGBTQ-plus community.

A lack of gathering places like gay bars across the Western Slope doesn’t help, Kevin McManamon said. McManamon is the executive director for AspenOUT, a nonprofit organization that provides resources for the valley’s LGBTQ community.

“The No. 1 leading problem that we have is people don’t feel that there’s any sense of community, whether you’re gay or lesbian or transgender,” he said. “But when we try to create those moments of community, we don’t get a great deal of participation. So it’s a little bit of a struggle.”

The pandemic affected the LGBTQ-plus community more adversely than their straight counterparts. Bars, restaurants and public social gatherings shuttered, leaving everyone to their own devices.

“It’s the general population as well, as everyone’s huddled in at home and they were not being social,” McManamon said. “That’s a struggle for a lot of people — gay, straight or whatever. But it really affects our community more than it does the straight population.”

Mental health is always a concern when it comes to the LGBTQ-plus community, and isolation and a waning sense of community continue to weigh on people’s minds, McManamon said.

AspenOUT facilitates counselor and therapeutic services to those in need.

With the assistance of Queer Asterisk Therapeutic Services out of Boulder, AspenOUT plans to underwrite a program that offers additional LGBTQ-plus training to therapists in the valley, McManamon said.

“There are good therapists in the valley — I’m not saying they’re not good,” McManamon said. “I would just like to have them be a little bit more specialized.”

McManamon also refers people to PFLAG, a national organization with a Roaring Fork Valley chapter whose mission is to unite “parents, families, and allies with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.”

Meanwhile, AspenOUT provides a dedicated Gender and Sexualities Alliance counselor to schools from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.

McManamon also officially represents the LGBTQ community on the Pitkin County Board of Mental Health, and is joining efforts to put out surveys to glean the data they need to make the changes they want.

“The more people know about us, and the more that we can try and help, the more people know what we do, the better it is for the entire valley,” McManamon said.

STRUGGLES IN YOUTH

In treating both parents and children, Aspen Hope Center tries to keep it simple for everyone.

They don’t bill at all, Paula Hall said. The clinician and crisis counselor works for the organization and is based in Roaring Fork High School. Aspen Hope deploys 10 therapists to 10 schools located throughout the Valley.

“We don’t take anybody’s financial information; immigration status isn’t a (big) deal,” she said. “These are positions that are funded mostly by grants and donations. The reason that is so good is because a lot of people won’t seek mental health or medical health because they have to either have a bill or turn in all of their income and personal information, and they don’t want to.”

Hall said 70% of her clients are Latino, a community group who has especially felt the brunt of the global pandemic.

“Especially in that particular community, because when we went to online school last year, many didn’t have the resources that they needed,” she said. “I have a lot of students who have some behavioral issues along with their mental health issues, and parents are doing the best they can and they’re working two or three jobs.”

According to the 2018-22 Regional Community Health Assessment, 33% of Latino students within the three-county area reported being depressed, while 13.1% “planned a suicide.” In comparison, 20.1% of white students within the same area reported being depressed, while 9.4% “planned a suicide.”

Data for LGBTQ-plus students is worse. Figures show at least 63.5% of LGBTQ-plus students report being depressed, while 33.8% planned a suicide.

This is why it is Aspen Hope’s goal to reach as many in need as possible, Hall said. Just this past year alone, Hall treated 33% of the high school’s student body. Under regular circumstances, the caseload typically hovers around 5% of the student body, she said.

“Another thing that I’ve done is if you know if someone is a single mother and they’re working two or three jobs and they have a kid in need, I’ll wait until they get off work,” Hall said.

Oftentimes, however, Hall is seeing students who are dealing with typical adolescent issues.

“It’s typically anxiety or depression,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot of serious mental illness.”

Note: Resources taken from a mental health map available on aspenstrong.org

Counseling, therapy, case management

Aspen Strong

• How to get help: call 970-718-2842 or visit https://aspenstrong.org

Mountain Family Health Center

• How to get help: call 945-2840 or visit https://www.mountainfamily.org

Mind Springs Health

• How to get help: call Aspen office: 970-920-555; Glenwood Springs office: 970-945-2583. Also, visit https://www.mindspringshealth.org

24-hour hotlines

Colorado Crisis services

• Call: 1.8844.493 or text TALK to 38255

Hope Center

• Aspen: 970-925-5858

• Eagle: 970-306-4673

• Garfield: 970-945-3728

Grief and loss

• Pathfinders: 970-925-1226

Child and family

• Aspen Family connections: 970-205-7025

Family Resource Center

• Roaring Fork office: 970-384-9500

• Parachute: 970-285-5701

Servicios en espanol

Mind Springs Health

• Aspen office: 970-920-5555

• Glenwood Springs office: 970-945-2583

Mountain Family Health Centers

• Call 970-945-2840

Aspen Strong

• Directorio de terapeutas: 970-718-2842

Discovery Cafe

• Call 719-650-5978 and speak with Gabe Cohen.

• Email Cohen at gabe@discoverycafe.org.

• Visit https://discoverycafe.org

• Visit Discovery Cafe at the Colorado Mountain College Rifle campus at 3695 Airport Road, Rifle.

West Mountain Regional Health Alliance

• Call 970-429-6186

• Visit https://westmountainhealthalliance.org/covid/

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com

Longevity Project: Panelists discuss what it takes to overcome life’s challenges

Part of being human is finding courage to stay the course when life wants to go in a different direction. Paralympic snowboarder Noah Elliott knows all about overcoming those challenges after he decided to have his leg amputated so he could pursue sports again.

“No matter who you are, you experience an ‘I can’t’ moment in your life,” Elliott said. “Although it’s hard to see, those ‘I can’t’ moments are the moments that define you as a person and define your next chapter.”

Elliott, who currently serves as the outreach program director for Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports in Steamboat Springs, was one of four guest speakers who took part in a virtual panel Tuesday as part of the annual Longevity Project, which was moderated by Aspen Times editor David Krause.

Other guests included Dash Doung Wong, a cancer survivor who now lives in Aspen; Nick Isenberg, a blind and partially deaf journalist who lives in the Roaring Fork Valley; and Kailyn Forsberg, a former freeskier from Eagle whose life and career took a turn when a crash during a slopestyle warm-up left her lower body paralyzed.

The Longevity Project — a four-part editorial series that includes two virtual events — focuses on living well in the mountains. A major theme of Tuesday’s panel was learning to overcome life’s most difficult obstacles.

“Having a great support system off the bat was definitely something that encouraged me to push as hard as I could. Without that, I don’t believe I would have been able to be where I am today,” Forsberg said of her injury five years ago before reflecting on her first time getting to sit ski at Winter Park. “There were emotional boundaries there. I was so curious about the physical limitations I would have. But just sitting there when they got me all set up in the sit ski, I was just like, ‘This is what I love to do.’ And I’m not going to let an accident just stop me from doing things I love.”

Earlier this spring, Wong had to fight off a bout with COVID-19. He said he’s back to “100%” although the disease did leave his only lung scarred. His other lung was removed because of cancer and that decision was a difficult one for Wong, who knew he would be giving up his military career. He had spent more than a decade as a Navy SpecOps before being medically discharged. He now devotes much of his time to veteran causes.

As part of our annual “Longevity” series, The Aspen Times, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Steamboat Pilot and Vail Daily are hosting a panel of inspiring people who have fought through adversity and continue to thrive in the mountains. Hear how they have fought off cancer, paralysis and blindness and continue to live a full, grateful life.

Posted by The Aspen Times on Tuesday, September 29, 2020

“The only ‘I can’t do this moment’ was when I had to choose to remove my lung. It was a choice I had to make, whether I was going to fight cancer through other means or if I was going to go with the surgical route,” Wong said. “I put so much of my identity and who I was into my job or my work, where it became everything of me. And because of a certain event that happened to me, all of it was taken away. That was the most destructive thing that could have ever happened to me and I was left in a dilemma of trying to figure out, ‘Who am I?’”

When it comes to overcoming life’s most difficult challenges, each of the panelists talked about putting focus on what one can do, as opposed to what one can’t do. Despite not being able to see, Isenberg has found a way to empower the blind through his radio series, “The Tactile Traveler.” Elliott works with children who are dealing with similar physical challenges, and Forsberg continues to move forward despite barely being able to move at all.

“That just puts you in the mindset of negativity and things you are not going to be able to do. But if something happens, you just have to take it one day at a time,” Forsberg said of dealing with simple things, such as not being able to go on hikes with her friends. “There is no point in wallowing in the fact I can’t do what they are doing. I have to look forward and look at myself and do the things I can still do.”

The Longevity Project will conclude Wednesday with its second virtual event, a talk with keynote speaker Sean Swarner, the first cancer survivor to have summited Mount Everest. The free discussion begins at 6 p.m. Viewers can register ahead of time at aspentimes.com/longevity.

The Longevity Project is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Summit Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Steamboat Pilot & Today and Vail Daily.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

First cancer survivor to summit Everest will talk about experiences at annual Longevity Project event

Sean Swarner has heard all kinds of questions as an inspirational speaker, author and adventurer. But on a September Zoom video conference — days after his latest climb of the 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — Swarner pondered a novel question about the physiology of his lungs.

Swarner, 46, lives with one functioning lung due to scar tissue in his right lung from surviving two types of cancer as a teenager. In an homage to the Disney film “Finding Nemo,” Swarner calls his right lung his “lucky fin.”

Swarner not only survived Hodgkin’s disease at 13 years old and Askin’s sarcoma at 16, but also conquered Mount Everest and each of the planet’s other Seven Summits — the tallest peak on each continent — with one lung.

Which brings us to the question: “In order to achieve all you have, did you retrain your approach to breathing?”

Swarner said his respiratory system has reacted to his right lung’s lack of oxygen transfer by expanding the left side of his rib cage. It’s a manifestation, Swarner believes, from all of his mindful deep breaths throughout the years, one inhale and one exhale at a time. Swarner said his consistent utilization of his diaphragm to pull in oxygen is “a representation of repetition” — one of his favorite sayings.

“Over time, that’s who you become,” he said.

Swarner said this respiratory modification is one reason he’s able to achieve things like completing the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

But the other, more important variable?

“Training myself how to use my brain to believe in myself,” Swarner said.

It’s that process of learning how to be ready to overcome that is at the heart of Swarner’s life and motivational work. Swarner will speak about his journey and the guidelines that have helped him overcome at the virtual Longevity Project event at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Swarner will talk about many elements of overcoming, including his new Summit Challenge, which he cultivated during pandemic downtime. It’s a series of intentional, individual challenges guided by Swarner and designed to reprogram your mind to overcome obstacles by using your personal core values. Some of Swarner’s values, which he said came from his mother and father, are acceptance, freedom, fitness, faith, family, excellence, personal growth, trustworthiness, uniqueness, wealth, wisdom, health and happiness.

“People who are depressed are living in the past,” Swarner said. “People who are anxious are living in the future. And people who are nervous and scared — which happens to me, too — it usually happens when I let my brain go wild. And I ask myself a question that’s, literally, two words: ‘What if?’”

Catching yourself

Swarner catches himself whenever he treads into “what if” mental space — whether that’s while trekking to the North or South poles or while at home thinking through what’s safe to do during COVID-19.

The values Swarner lives by are summed up by shrewd, sensible sayings that help channel his psyche. One is to “visualize victory.” He did so as a child when he closed his eyes and pretended he was inside his body killing cancer cells.

Another is training your psyche to understand its triggers. To Swarner, you can’t blame triggers because they didn’t make you feel a certain way — how you reacted to those triggers did.

So if social media is a trigger for someone, he recommends not watching hot-button videos while waking up and before falling asleep. Rather, to bookend each of his days, Swarner Googles “inspirational videos.” It’s a conscious decision to manifest a personal sense of gratefulness.

“Nothing makes you feel a certain way except for you,” Swarner said. “And the instant you give someone else power over your own emotions, you lose who you are.”

Taking after Terry

For a guy who once wanted to be a psychologist for cancer patients, Swarner has become more than that. He’s a mentor for the masses.

But he wasn’t always that way. At 13, he was a boy weeping on the floor of his family’s shower. Bald from head to toe due to cancer treatments, Swarner pulled chunks of hair out of the drain and asked himself, “Why would I give up and die? Why wouldn’t I fight?”

He’s channeled that courage ever since, now as a member of a Facebook group dubbed “One Lungers Unite.” It’s a digital community where people with limited respiratory function interact.

Swarner said the group brings him back to his first days as a boy recovering in the hospital. Back then, his first goal was to crawl from his bed the 8 feet to the bathroom. Eventually, the positive spirit led him to the top of the world on Everest.

Everest’s summit at 29,029 feet above sea level was about as far away as Swarner could imagine his life would take him 33 years ago when he was told he had 14 days to live. His rock bottom was opening his eyes in his hospital bed to realize he was being read his last rites only to inform his parents, “I’m not dead yet.”

Some of the first steps back from near death came in his parents’ living room, where Swarner limped, imitating his childhood hero, Terry Fox. Terry Fox wasn’t a celebrity. But he surely was a man who lived like Swarner, even if he died too early at 22.

In 1980, Fox was an athletic activist who ran across Canada with a limp due to an amputated right leg stemming from osteosarcoma. His quest was to gather $1 from every Canadian for cancer research. And he’d do it one step at a time, his prosthetic clicking in a runner’s rhythm each time his dying body propelled his right leg forward.

“He made it to Thunder Bay, (Ontario) and ended up getting a reoccurrence and passing away,” Swarner said. “He was a huge Canadian hero.”

Superman standard

Superman is the other childhood idol Swarner said gave him the spirit to survive.

Swarner collected Superman comics as a kid, and he continues to appreciate the superhero’s essence while admiring the life of the actor who played Superman, Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in an equestrian accident.

“I saw him living an amazing life,” Swarner said.

And Swarner has done so, as well. Each day, he reaches for Reeve’s Superman standard. To this day, Swarner’s convinced he survived because of his psyche.

So he continues to prime that logical focus and calculated confidence that calibrates a healthy psyche.

Now, it’s your turn.

“More people need to realize we have a lot more control over our physical being than we think,” Swarner said.

The Longevity Project is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Summit Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Steamboat Pilot & Today and Vail Daily. Read more at aspentimes.com/longevity.

Plants over pills: Non-traditional medicine growing in popularity, especially in Colorado’s mountain towns

Editor’s note: This is part 4 of a four-part series on longevity in the High Country. The series is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Vail Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Summit Daily News and Steamboat Pilot. More at aspentimes.com/longevity.

You might shake your head at Kris Rowse’s sound vibration room, the one full of 17 gongs that play a musical note attuned to the vibration of a specific planet or asteroid, or you might even think she’s nuts. That’s OK. More than a decade ago, before Rowse took a yoga class, she’d probably agree with you.

She was an event planner then, someone who ran, among other events, the Steamboat Soccer Tournament. But she was also turning 40, and she was feeling what many say they feel when they reach their middle age: A dissatisfaction that was hard to pinpoint.

“I could feel that there was a shift, but I didn’t know what that meant,” said Rowse from her gong studio, Trust Love Connection, in her Steamboat Springs home. “I wanted a change, but I felt disempowered in how to achieve that.”

That change began with yoga, a well-known gateway to spirituality as well as fitness. Rowse met a life coach through the class, began using one, and the coach told her about sound vibrations. The sounds soothed Rowse, and then a woman from Boulder came down to teach it, and, well, you could say the planets aligned.

You could say that because Rowse, at 51, now works as a sound vibration practitioner as well as a life coach and astrological reader. She uses astrology — yes, she’ll ask you “what’s your sign,” but not as a pickup line — to help you navigate the different energies headed your way, according to the constant shift of the solar system.

She believes the universe was telling her something when she was 40, and now she helps others figure out what it’s telling them. She uses the gongs as a pathway to their true feelings, as well as to help them with stress, fear, anxiety, grief or depression. She knows what to play based on what your astrological chart tells her.

“I was having a discussion with a client the other day, and then I said, ‘Hey, stop talking now. Why don’t you close your eyes, and then we will come back to it,’” Rowse said. “I played the gongs, and it gets our head out of the game. It lets us feel.”

Think about the way music affects us, Rowse said,. Think about how an upbeat song, such as “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins, may make us want to dance, or how the song “Careless Whisper” by Wham may make us want to cry. The gongs aren’t that much different.

Despite this explanation, if you still believe Rowse seems from another planet, or even another galaxy, well, she’s not interested in convincing you otherwise. She’s doing well, with a lot of out-of-town clients as well as those from Steamboat Springs.

“My clients are already into energy,” she said. “I’m not a converter. This is really, really popular enough that I don’t have to spend a lot of time convincing people.”

Rowse wasn’t just referring to her own practice. Non-traditional medicine, or alternative medicine, makes Rowse and many others who practice it a good living, especially in Colorado, and even more especially in the mountain towns of Colorado.

Rowse is the more extreme example of it, but there are others who practice naturopathy, a natural approach to medicine, and because it’s legal in Colorado, cannabis qualifies as well. And while traditional doctors have a healthy skepticism of it, many in Steamboat Springs also embrace it and even refer their patients to it.

Many nontraditional practitioners such as Rowse feel likewise about traditional Western medicine: She does not treat disease or cancer, for instance, and will tell folks to see a doctor if she believes there’s something serious going on.

But she’s had clients say their anxiety evaporated after a session with the gongs, or night owls who went home and slept all night. She uses the gongs herself by trading time with another sound practitioner.

“When I started this 11 years ago, it was way more woo woo,” said Rowse, using a term that Urban Dictionary defines as “the supernatural.” “It was definitely not mainstream. But it’s a lot bigger now, and I can say, from a personal level, I’m a completely different person.”

Searching for help when Western medicine can’t provide it

When Western medicine failed Cristen Malia, she sought help from her mother. But in Malia’s case, she was battling Lyme disease, the tick-borne illness that causes fatigue and joint pain, among other problems, and the traditional antibiotics didn’t cure her. So she used holistic medicine, the kind her mother preached to her back when she was a kid.

“She didn’t raise an eyebrow to anything,” Malia said.

That meant acupuncture, maybe visiting a friend who was a chiropractor, and learning from a holistic doctor. She was already eating well, thanks to what she learned from the diet her mother fed her, and she kept experimenting with different methods and products. Eventually, her fatigue disappeared, as well as her migraine headaches, and she spent less time on the couch.

“Western medicine can serve until it doesn’t,” Malia said, “and then it needs to be really examined. There are a lot of other ways to heal.”

More patients are seeking alternatives to traditional, Western medicine when they can’t find an answer but believe there’s one to be found.

Joseph Kimmerly, the general manager of Billo, a marijuana dispensary in Steamboat Springs, got into pot years ago the way others might develop an interest in wine. He was fascinated with all the ways marijuana could smell, in so many different forms, and all the different ways it could affect him. He made it a career four years ago in part for what it did for him as a patient.

“You start out trusting the traditional system, and you assume they will solve the problem, and yet, traditional doctors don’t get to know you that well. They’re just copying and pasting what others have tried,” said Kimmerly, who suffered from sinus problems and headaches daily. “I went through shots and surgeries and steroids, and I felt like doctors weren’t listening to me. I found cannabis, and that’s the one thing that’s been consistent as far as working.”

Recreational users flock to Billo but perhaps as many as 25% of customers come seeking relief. Kimmerly isn’t allowed to give medical advice, but he can ask about their lifestyles and struggles and recommend a few products that could help make them functional again based on his own experiences.

Pain is the most common complaint, although Kimmerly can also recommend products that help with sleep problems, chronic gut disease and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Kimmerly also attends conferences with doctors researching the medical benefits of cannabis. Hemp, the pot plant used to make clothing and medicine, is also used in CBD, a product used to battle the same kind of issues. Billo sells CBD, some with THC — the chemical that makes you feel loopy —and some without or in low doses.

Western medicine’s limitations are many, but one of its biggest failings is the hardships in treating chronic conditions, or conditions that make us feel not our best but aren’t necessarily life-threatening or even debilitating. This is where alternative medicine can really shine, said Dr. Justin Pollack, a naturopathic doctor from the Mountain River clinic in Frisco. Pollack moved to naturopathy after wanting to practice in Summit County.

“I’m in an area where we have a lot of healthy people,” Pollack said. “We don’t have the conditions of an urban city, with obesity and cardio problems. We have ski instructors and athletic mountain bikers. So my practice adapted to what people experienced when their bodies break down.”

Pollack now specializes in allergies, pain, inflammation and digestive problems. Once he’s established that a patient doesn’t have a life-threatening condition through testing by traditional doctors, he looks at how he can treat them using natural medicine and by asking lifestyle questions. He’s generally not looking to cure his patients: They want his help to learn how to thrive.

“One of our biggest is diet,” Pollack said. “They may be eating something they are sensitive to that’s causing chronic inflammation or gut issues.”

Malia now practices with Minds in Motion in Steamboat Springs as a counselor who emphasizes mindfulness based on yoga and psychotherapy. Mindfulness, she said, is a huge part of healing.

“It helps me feel empowered on the path of healing,” Malia said. “It makes me feel, ‘I can do this. I can be aware of what’s happening in my own body and learn how to regulate my own nervous system.’”

A natural approach to treatment

Out of all the alternatives to Western medicine, naturopathy probably resembles the more traditional model the most. Though they are lobbying to change this, naturopathic doctors aren’t allowed to prescribe under Colorado state law — those laws vary by state — and they can’t treat cancer or some other conditions, but they can offer herbal medicine and products that can act very much like prescriptions, and they will administer blood work and tests. Some do minor surgery, and they see patients with the idea of helping them feel better. They can even treat the side effects of chemotherapy, even if they can’t offer chemo themselves.

But there are some major differences, first among them is a natural approach to medicine.

“If it’s a digestive issue, sometimes it’s a very different approach,” Pollack said. “An MD may be prompted to go with an acid blocker. But instead of blocking a natural process, maybe we can heal the issue with herbs and other methods.”

Naturopathic doctors believe their biggest difference comes from the time they spend with their patients to form individual ways to treat their problems instead of relying on prescriptions used to treat the masses.

Dr. Grace Charles, a naturopathic doctor with Minds in Motion who also has training in traditional medicine, works with patients struggling with fertility and women with hormonal imbalances who are tired and cranky. She will use her own knowledge of traditional medicine as well as refer her patients to others if necessary, but she believes in her approach.

“I spend more time giving them the tools,” Charles said, “A traditional doctor may say, ‘Your weight is too high, so I want you to cut calories and go on an exercise program.’ I will say, ‘Here are three options for breakfast.’

“A natural practice can be more difficult because I’m giving you something that can help, but I’m also trying to get you to change your lifestyle as well.”

Even those who practice naturopathic medicine as well as more traditional approaches, such as Charles, refer to and receive references from traditional doctors, but they cherish that time with their patients. Pollack and Charles both said that’s one thing they loved about their practices.

At Minds in Motion, in fact, they all work as independent contractors, but they all ask each other for opinions and sometimes treat the same patient with their specialty. Charles and others call this treating “the whole patient” rather than seeing a doctor who likely has just a few minutes before prescribing a pill without offering options.

“People feel more in control of their health,” Charles said. “They get a choice in what happens to them, and I can offer non-drug solutions. We can fertilize the soil, so to speak.”

Some traditional doctors dispute the degree to which this is true. Brian Harrington, the Routt County Public Health medical director, works as a family physician at Yampa Valley Medical Associates. Family physicians also spend time with their patients, he said, and attempt to find solutions to the problem and not just cure symptoms. He resents the idea that he’s simply there to cure symptoms.

“They like to put themselves on a higher mantle,” Harrington said of alternative doctors, “and yet I do that too. I talk about diet. I try to treat the whole patient.”

Harrington, in fact, gets irritated when nontraditional practitioners try to degrade conventional medicine.

“That’s silliness,” Harrington said. “That’s a red flag to me. If you can’t build up your practice on your own merits, that’s a red flag.”

However, Harrington himself defends alternative medicine. He doesn’t even like the word “alternative” because it implies that conventional medicine is the “correct” medicine.

“There’s a role for lots of kinds of approaches,” Harrington said. “I try to figure out what my patient believes in. What was alternative in the past isn’t an alternative anymore.”

One of Harrington’s partners with Yampa Valley Medical, Michelle Jimerson, calls herself “a huge fan” of alternative and what she calls “complementary” medicine. She’s researched chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncture specialists to see what they offer.

“I think it’s great we have so many options here (in Steamboat Springs),” Jimerson said. “Western medicine doesn’t always have all the answers. I honestly wish there was more of a crossover between the two.”

It’s usually not just one issue that’s cause the complaint, Jimerson said, and sometimes a different approach can help with one issue while a more traditional treatment can help with another.

“We do try to do a lot of behavioral health,” she said. “That’s why I love family medicine, I can spend extra time with my patients.”

Malia, like some of her patients, may come to alternative medicine after they discover the more traditional Western approaches aren’t working for them. Malia, like her mother, is more of a plant-based eater, something she developed as she grew up.

“My Dad believed in eating whatever I wanted, and Mom was nothing like that,” Malia said. “I discovered on my own that I didn’t feel well when I ate what Dad let me eat. So at my Dad’s, I wouldn’t eat the cookies or drink the soda. I was an athlete, and it was important to me to feel good.”

Beware of hucksters

Doctors who do practice non-traditional medicine are used to doubters.

“Especially the husband,” Charles, who treats mostly women, said with a laugh.

But Charles understands the doubt. She may even expect it when a patient is referred to her by a conventional doctor.

“Some feel as if they’ve been shoved in the door, and sometimes they are really skeptical as a result,” Charles said. “Sometimes their mind gets changed.”

Sometimes those doubts are warranted, Harrington said. Sometimes non-traditional medicine resembles the “doctors” selling cures in expensive bottles next to saloons on dirt roads. It can be expensive as well, as insurance rarely covers non-traditional treatments.

“There’s a lot of hucksterism out there,” he said. “I have some heartburn over people who try to huck something and tell you (that) you need it and are making money off it and promoting it without evidence.”

There’s a danger beyond just getting conned, Harrington said.

“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is, and I resent claims made without any substantial evidence,” he said. “It can harm then because a patient may choose something other than what is helpful to treat a condition.”

Then again, all medicine is at fault for selling cures that may or may not be valid, Harrington said.

“If you’re willing to spend the money, and it doesn’t hurt you in any way, and you walk away feeling better, and you’ve avoided surgery, well, great,” Harrington said.

As much as a fan as Jimerson is of non-traditional medicine, she also believes conventional medicine has an important place. She would worry, she said, if someone refused traditional medicine in favor of an herbal cure, especially if something seemed seriously wrong.

“I’m biased, but I do think everyone should have a medical home, with a primary care doctor,” she said. “We try to be open to all sorts of different ways to treat someone, but I still do think traditional medicine has a role in that. At the end of the day, you probably do need something from us.”

In Steamboat, however, doctors are willing to work with other methods to make sure their patients feel as good as they can.

“There isn’t a lot of head-to-head competition,” Jimerson said. “Everyone works together. It would be unfortunate if a naturopathic doctor said you didn’t need to see a doctor, but we are very lucky in that sense. Especially when you are talking about longevity, there should be a blending of the two.”