Aspen Strong symposium focuses on power of play


Top tips to help maintain good mental health:

1. Exercise daily

2. Eat healthy

3. Practice mindfulness

4. Avoid drugs, alcohol and tobacco use

5. Get a good night’s sleep

6. Identify an emotional support system


If you or someone you know is in crisis or considering suicide, there are resources available locally and nationally.

Colorado Crisis Services is a free, 24-hour organization that helps with mental health, substance abuse or emotional help. Confidential services are available at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak to a trained professional. Reach them online at

Aspen Hope Center provides a free, 24-hour confidential Hopeline for anyone who needs help or is in a crisis. Reach the crisis line at 970-925-5858 (Aspen) or 970-306-4673 (Eagle River Valley).

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a 24/7 support line available by calling 1-800-273-8255

The message Tuesday night was simple: “All of the aspen trees within this grove are connected by one root system. No one stands alone.”

That was the ideal local mental health counselor and Aspen Strong founder Christina King expressed to kick off the fifth annual Changing Brains, Changing Lives Symposium at the Wheeler Opera House.

The community event, spearheaded by King’s Aspen Strong nonprofit — which aims to act as a connector among locals, professionals, businesses and all of the mental health resources available in the Roaring Fork Valley — focused on the role of play as a vital part of human development, communication and mental hygiene for people of all ages.

“We should never stop playing,” said Georgie Wisen-Vincent, play therapist, managing director and head of faculty for The Play Strong Institute in California. “A healthy community begins with the experiences that we share with our children that are loving, intentional and joyful.”

Wisen-Vincent was one of the presenters at Tuesday night’s roughly two-hour symposium. She gave attendees the science behind play, showing images of the brain and how playful activity affects it, while also showing real life examples of how creative thinking can help kids specifically cope with traumatic events.

“Play has an enormous potential for communication and healing because it’s children’s natural language of their own development,” Wisen-Vincent said to symposium attendees. “Often what kids can’t say through words they can say through play.”

But kids aren’t the only ones who can benefit from the creativity and freedom that comes with play. After her presentation, Wisen-Vincent sat in on the seven-person symposium panel that looked at what play means for adults and how it can create healthier families and communities as a whole.

She and guests, including Keyon Dooling, former NBA player and certified life coach, and Cherise Northcutt, a leading California-based clinical psychologist, started the discussion by talking about what play meant to them personally alongside locals Greg Poschman, Pitkin County Commissioner; Jayne Gottlieb, founder of the Aspen Shakti yoga studio; Sean Van Horn, mountain endurance athlete; and Stephen Sherer, founder and CEO of ISVERA, a lifestyle clothing brand.

“I think we’re under the misconception that healing only takes place in the therapist’s office,” Northcutt said. “I’m a therapist and I believe in therapy, but I don’t believe it’s for everybody and I don’t believe therapy happens only that one hour a week. … What’s happening the other 167 hours in the week? How are you trying to heal your brain from whatever you’re trying to heal it from?”

Overall, the panelists kept returning to the idea of simple tasks like walking, running, game nights with family, being polite to others, keeping in touch with friends and physically touching another person as forms of play, healing and ways to open the door for conversations around deeper feelings related to mental well-being.

“There becomes a clarity when you allow yourself to let go of stressful thoughts,” Sherer said of play in his life. “When I’m facing an obstacle with my work, sometimes something as simple as a walk outside or a run or something where you can just kind of let go of what you’re worried about creates a capacity for you to come up with the solution naturally.”

But outside of discussing play and its therapeutic effects on mental hygiene for all ages, the panelists and presenters also addressed the elephant on the stage with them.

Four people have died by suicide in the Roaring Fork Valley over the past month, including three deaths in a five-day period, and there was an overwhelming sense that many locals felt at a loss of what to do in response.

“Sometimes these conversations can be a little bit difficult,” said Dooling, who acknowledged that he’d heard of the recent suicides. “Anxiety is on the rise, depression is on the rise, people are dwelling in anger. We’ve got to heal. We’ve got to do our work to show healthy examples of redemption.“

During Dooling’s presentation, he talked about his own healing after spending years of his life suppressing the sexual abuse he experienced as a child.

Dooling said he had to hit rock bottom, which aligned with deciding to end his 13-year NBA career and hiding from his emotions, before he could start his healing and address his mental hygiene, which he referred to as his “work.”

Now, Dooling is a motivational speaker and certified life coach and has helped over 50 NBA players seek out therapy for the first time in their lives over the past year.

“A lot of times we suffer in silence because we think our network and our family and our friends and our infrastructure won’t be there for us,” Dooling said. “I was wrong about that. They want to be there to support us when they can, they want to be able to contribute in a positive way when you need it.”

At the end of the panel discussion and presentations, King took to the Wheeler stage one more time to encourage attendees to continue the conversation sparked that night in hopes of helping locals who may be struggling or unsure of how to address their own mental well-being feel less alone.

“Whatever resonated with you tonight, keep talking about it. Talk about it with your friends, talk about it at home, talk about it with your families and just keep the conversation going,” King said. “The more we talk, the more we’re connected.”