Aspen council pushes for mental health discussions
The recent spate of tragic deaths in the Aspen area has prompted elected officials to push for a community conversation about mental health, which was the subject of a tense City Council discussion on the topic this week.
The five-member council ultimately agreed Tuesday to have City Manager Sara Ott research what it will take to pull off a forum in the early winter as a launch to a series of community discussions about emotional and mental health.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein floated the idea of the city hosting a forum at the Wheeler Opera House that would address mental health issues that have plagued the community in the form of suicides, substance abuse, and emotional stressors from social media and everyday struggles.
Hauenstein’s plea also carried with it a sense of urgency. The last time a community forum of this nature was held in Aspen came in 2017. Just over the last months there have been multiple suicides and at least one untimely death.
“Suicides often go in clusters,” he said, adding that “I think we have to confront it, we have to get out and we have to talk about it.”
The councilman’s idea had support from Mayor Torre, and prior to this week’s council meeting the two put out feelers to their elected colleagues about holding a community event, as well as who potential partners should be. Hauenstein proposed that Ott lead the effort.
“I’ve been in touch with Aspen Hope Center and Aspen Strong and A Way Out and a number of other people and everybody is interested participating in this as a community event,” Hauenstein said, “and I’m asking for council’s support to task Sara Ott with organizing this and orchestrating it.”
After debating over the level of the city’s involvement in such an endeavor — as well its scope, size and mission — the council agreed to have Ott begin work organizing an early-winter event as a kick-off to a continuing series of outreach and community gatherings.
Ott also is tasked with contacting partners to help facilitate programming — that includes Aspen Valley Hospital, Aspen Chamber Resort Association, Aspen Skiing Co., Pitkin County, and the Basalt and Snowmass Village municipalities.
Before she does that, she wants the five City Council members to sign off on a mission statement of sorts for her to show potential partners. Ott said she’ll work this week on drafting a statement that captures the City Council’s overall intent of the programming. She plans to present it to the council for tweaking and approval at its work session next week, Ott said.
Hauenstein and Torre emphasized that the programming will provide residents with the skills to be able to identify people who might be suffering and are considering taking their life. They recognized that the events probably won’t attract people with internal struggles and life-ending thoughts.
“It’s a great concept,” Councilwoman Rachel Richards said. “It needs to be done. It needs to be done right.”
Yet Richards cast skepticism on pulling off such an event in such short order with a forum at the Wheeler Opera House. Her suggestions led to the idea of creating a larger-scale program that would include a number of partners. The topics of suicide, substance abuse and social media could be broken up into a series of discussions rather than boiled into a single event, she said.
“Frankly, any one of these topics could be a full two-hour meeting, let alone trying to squeeze three into one meeting,” she said.
Law enforcement also should be brought into the fold, she said. The mayor and other council members agreed.
“I’d like to hear from our Aspen Police Department and our sheriff,” Richards said. “This isn’t just about mental health professionals, and if we silo into just the mental health professionals, we’re not going to hear about the other societal pressures that are pushing people into these modes or into this kind of crisis mode, period.
“I don’t want this to sound like a casual comment, but there’s a point and time where all the counseling in the world isn’t going to help if you’re not paying rent and you’re not getting paid enough to make rent and you just lost your house. There’s a lot of circumstances that are pushing people to extremes.”
Councilmen John Doyle and Skippy Mesirow noted the complexities of mental health and connecting with the people who need help.
“I think one of our biggest hurdles is we have so many avenues for people to get help, and we’re not reaching those people who need it most, and that is the question,” Doyle said. “I don’t know what the answer is, and clearly I don’t think anybody does at this point. That’s the goal — reaching people who need the help.”
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