Aspen keeps eyes on mental health collaboration, conversation in 2022 |

Aspen keeps eyes on mental health collaboration, conversation in 2022

2021 defined by impassioned discussions, programs that will continue into next year

Panelist Miller Ford, left, talks as Chelsea Carnoali and Angilina Taylor listen on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, during an “Aspen Together” mental health event inside the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
GOODBYE, 2021; HELLO, 2022

This week and into the first week of 2022, The Aspen Times will examine the issues and news events that defined the Aspen-area community in 2021, while also turning the lens to next year and what to watch for. Our 10-part series will show how the pandemic’s tentacles have and will continue to dip into our lives: skiing, tourism, development, mental health, labor shortages, business closings, housing shortages, a real estate boom, entertainment, and on and on.

For people struggling with mental health, it’s been a rough year. A rough couple of years, actually, with the pandemic and all the other compounding stressors that have contributed to a community here who has long struggled with mental health according to both statistics and anecdotes alike.

Aspen city officials — like so many others in the Roaring Fork Valley — have had mental health on the mind in 2021. The needs of the community sparked a number of impassioned conversations at City Hall this year.

“We’ve all been touched recently by some of the incidences of suicide and depression that we’ve heard from our community,” Aspen Mayor Torre said. “It’s made a real impact on us.”

Enough of an impact for the city to organize “Aspen Together,” a suicide prevention and mental health awareness event at the Wheeler Opera House in late November. (Other similar programming also took place at the Wheeler in 2017).

Consider it a start to plenty more participation in the community mental health conversation moving forward, Torre said. The city isn’t aiming to become its own mental health care provider but rather a supporter of the existing resources; Aspen City Council already has a date in the books in early January for council members to meet with local providers to learn more about the mental health landscape, Torre said.

“The conversation for us is really one of heightened concern and a call to action to do whatever we can to raise awareness and get people to the resources that we do have,” Torre said.

Those resources are abundant in the Roaring Fork Valley, providers and advocates have emphasized, though there are fractures in the system of mental health care at large, the availability of a variety of providers in the area helps fill some of the gaps.

Working with the valley’s pros is an idea Councilman Ward Hauenstein can get behind.

“We can’t be the experts on everything that comes along, but we can rely on the experts and that’s what we’re trying to do is to raise awareness — not only awareness but competencies and tools to engage people and know how to engage people and when to engage them and not to shy away when somebody is in need,” Hauenstein said.

The last few months of 2021 have marked strides forward in that effort; a number of community initiatives are already carrying the torch forward into 2022.

That includes the Pitkin Area Corresponder Teams (PACT) program, which dispatches Mind Springs Health clinicians and Aspen Police Department human services officers to mental health calls and also supports law enforcement in Snowmass Village and unincorporated Pitkin County.

The program was finally able to secure the staff to move from a four-day to seven-day-per-week schedule this fall. Aspen’s Assistant Police Chief Linda Consuegra, who helps coordinate that program, said in an early November interview that she considers it “the No. 1 success” of a partnership between the police department and Mind Springs “to be able to have a full operating PACT team.”

Other awareness and education events also have started populating the calendar this year: mental well-being seminars; education on how to identify, address and prevent mental health crises; public series aimed at creating space for candid conversation and support groups for those who are currently struggling.

Torre said he hopes that the focus on mental health will be a “continuum of conversation” as the community looks toward 2022 and beyond. Addressing the mental health needs of the community won’t be a “one and done” task, he said; Torre considers the Aspen Together event as a “great kickoff” and a “great first step” toward more action on that front.

“If your (community’s) mental health is not a priority (as a council), then a lot of the other areas that you might want to be working on are not going to to be as effective because primary is making sure that people have their basic needs taken care of, and one of those is mental health,” Torre said.

It also entails addressing the external factors that can weigh on the local community’s mental health like housing insecurity and compounding stress on people who work in the service industry, Councilman Skippy Mesirow said.

The effort goes beyond council conversations or community programs, Mesirow said.

“I think what is required to meet this moment is a unified, collective cultural shift,” Mesirow said. “This is a challenge that can be resourced by programs, institutions, government, but ultimately, it’s carried out by us as individuals, as citizens, right? And it’s the choices that we make each day on how to treat one another, how to respond to challenge, how to support a neighbor — over time, that’s really where this will or won’t get solved.”

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