Aspen Hope Center event highlights the importance of connection |

Aspen Hope Center event highlights the importance of connection

Dr. Carl Hammerschlag speaks at the Wheeler Opera House earlier this year during "Erase the Stigma, Healing in Community," an Aspen Hope Center presentation about mental health awareness.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

Mental-health treatment is missing the point of human connection — rather than prescribing pills in order to “get rid of” symptoms immediately, people need to be connected.

“It’s the nature of our biology,” said Dr. Carl Hammerschlag, a psychiatrist and expert in community-based health care. “We are made to be connected.”

Hammerschlag was the guest speaker at an event presented by the Aspen Hope Center on Tuesday night at the Wheeler Opera House. The bottom-level seating of the theater was nearly full for the event, which introduced the Hope Center’s new community-wide campaign aimed at erasing the mental-health stigma.

The Hope Center, a nonprofit that provides access to mental-health services throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, began talking about the campaign in February after the community faced the aftermath of four suicides in just 10 days, said Michelle Muething, executive director.

So they came up with a slogan, “We can talk,” to remind the community that the center is there to educate people about the mental-health care system and how to navigate it.

The simplest way is to connect, which became the theme of Hammerschlag’s presentation. He said the health care system, and Americans in general, suffer from “scientism,” meaning that if you can’t explain it or prove it, then it must not be real.

“How you feel about things is as important as what you know about them,” he said. “Pay attention to what you feel — it has something to teach us.”

A Yale-trained psychiatrist who has spent more than 20 years working with Native Americans, Hammerschlag had a compassionate delivery as he talked more about healing and connection than he did about psychotherapy or mental illness. He walked through the aisles before the event began and introduced himself to dozens of attendees. He had a deep voice, with a subtle accent that resembled a Native American tongue more so than his New York upbringing.

He spoke of his feelings about pharmaceuticals — that pills thrown at those with so-called mental “diseases” are teaching people they need to get rid of their problems immediately; that getting rid of it is the only way to cure it.

“We need to find some way to connect with each other in ways that remind us of our humanity,” he said.

That’s what the Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley is doing as a community, Hammerschlag said, applauding the fact that so many people came together just for one conversation about how they can do better.

“Congratulations on the course you’re taking,” he said.

With depression and other mental illnesses, it’s important to remind people that things change, he said.

“The way it is is different from the way it’s going to be,” he said.

But audience members wanted to know why here, why Aspen? When it was time for audience questions, they focused on why this apparent paradise suffers from so many suicides and why our moods can change so suddenly.

Some immediate and more obvious answers had to do with the income disparity we see here — the haves and the have-nots, which are magnified in a town of this size and overall wealth, Hammerschlag said. Another possible reason he gave is that it’s a community dependent upon making others happy, given its tourism-based economy.

But the underlying problem that he sees in communities everywhere, not just within the Roaring Fork Valley, is the reluctance to reach out. The stigma exists everywhere.

“We are trained, especially men, that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. I’m telling you that vulnerability is only an opportunity for growth. If you are unwilling to be vulnerable, you’re only going to do what you’ve always done, because those are the only things we know.

“You’ve got to find people you can reach out to,” he said. “You’ve got to find some way to remind yourself that you have a connection that is not going to abandon you, even here in paradise.”

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