Community confronts addiction, suicide | AspenTimes.com

Community confronts addiction, suicide

Naomi Havlen

Doctors, business owners, people struggling with substance abuse, local parents, public officials and many more convened Wednesday to discuss substance abuse and suicide in the valley.And the collective message from the 180 people who attended The Divided Self: Crisis in Paradise at the Hotel Jerome was clear: Something must change.Public awareness – shining a light on substance abuse and suicide in the valley – might be one way to keep the problem at bay.”We are hopeful that this conference is a new beginning on the path to finding creative, healthy approaches to cope with our conflicts – within ourselves and as members of our community,” said Kris Marsh, president of the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation, which presented the conference.Although the nonprofit brainstormed the conference last fall, this spring a number of suicides and drug overdoses reported in local newspapers brought the issues to the forefront of public consciousness.It’s rare to see a cross section of the community gathered together when there’s not a free music performance involved. It’s even more rare when that group gathers to confront some of the community’s biggest problems.This was the first community gathering of its kind since the mid-1990s, when a small group of locals organized by The Aspen Institute identified substance abuse and suicide as the primary health problems in the community.Addicts told their stories about the depths of their addictions and their journey to recovery, and counselors and doctors spoke about the damage they’ve seen in the community as a result of rampant drug abuse. A panel of people who have lost family members to suicide somberly told of their loved ones’ last days alive, and counselors relayed suicide rates and how to identify when a someone is suicidal.Although there were pin-drop silent moments and rapt attention in the ballroom, the conference was about opening up a dialogue, and there was no shortage of participation.Community members hugged in the hallways during breaks and had lively exchanges about what should be done to shed light on problems that are often swept under the rug in a picture-perfect resort town like Aspen. Dr. Michael Weissberg, a psychiatrist from the University of Colorado Medical School, summarized the suggestions at the end of the day, most of which included raising community awareness.Participants theorized that more education in the community about the problems could lead to early interventions. An annual fund-raiser – even a float in the Fourth of July parade – could keep the community aware of struggles with addiction and depression, they said.Some larger questions were raised in small group discussions, including whether Aspen needs to change its image from a party town to a health-loving community.Many conference attendants said they are impressed with the local groundswell of support.”This has been going on for a long time, but right now these concerns are coming to the forefront,” said Brush Creek Village resident Carolyn Harder. “People are willing to deal with this themselves and believe that changes can be made and our community can be known for its beauty and being a healthy community.”Harder and her friend Laura Smith are both parents of teenagers and say they have confronted their own concerns about kids and substance abuse by forming a parent peer group that meets regularly. The parents support each other in making tough decisions to keep their children safe and well accounted for.Smith, an Old Snowmass resident, said going to the conference reconfirmed her feelings that these are issues the community needs to work on as a group.”We are individuals representing the community and the world, and we need to decide how we can minister to ourselves,” Smith said. “This was an affirmation coming forward – as a community, we have to help each other.”A report from Wednesday’s conference will reflect all of the problems and ideas expressed, and a film crew will edit footage from the day into documentaries that may be presented to the community in the future. Marsh said that the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation will analyze data to come up with a strategic plan for the future.”It’s so tempting to want to move quickly, but we’ll move strategically because, honestly, talk is cheap,” she said. “But action is where it’s going to happen. We have work to do.”For more information on The Divided Self: Crisis in Paradise, contact the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation at 544-1298.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com