As pandemic persists, mental health needs rise in Pitkin, Garfield counties
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 http://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.”
- Longevity resources: Reaching the Latino community — and vice versa
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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
• 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
Colorado Crisis services
• Call: 1.8844.493 or text TALK to 38255
• 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
• Directorio de terapeutas: 970-718-2842
• Call 719-650-5978 and speak with Gabe Cohen.
• Email Cohen at email@example.com.
• 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
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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