Getting the message out: Roaring Fork mental health providers continue to offer support, services | AspenTimes.com
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Getting the message out: Roaring Fork mental health providers continue to offer support, services

Elliot Mitchell, 9, left, Dina Diehl, and Aubrianna Diehl, 8, wear masks while walking through Aspen's downtown core on Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

FINDING HELP

A look at the valley’s options for finding mental health support:

Aspen Hope Center

A crisis center that offers short term and long term mental health support.

Contact: 970-925-5858 and ourhopecenter.org

Mind Springs Health

Offers broad scope, community mental health support

Contact: 970-201-4299 and mindspringshealth.org. Mental health support line, 877-519-7505.

Aspen Strong

Connecting all of the mental health resources together, including a list of all valley providers, in one place.

Contact: aspenstrong.org

For Kersten Gwost, not much has changed for her professionally since the start of the COVID-19 crisis back in March.

Yes, the counselor and founder of Kersten Wilson Counseling is seeing some of her clients on a computer screen versus in-person. Yes, her Carbondale office was “pretty quiet” the first few months of the pandemic and has seemed slightly busier than usual this summer. And yes, she’s taken on some new roles, including running a free support group for frontline or essential workers for a few months through the Aspen Hope Center.

But no, Gwost hasn’t seen any major changes in her practice and client load, or to her main mission and goal as a local mental health professional: promote mental wellness and help people “root into themselves” in an integrative, holistic way.

“In all honesty, my practice hasn’t changed significantly. I still have the majority of my people, if they’re healthy, coming to meet in person because a lot of people want and need that contact,” Gwost said.

“We are all incredibly resilient, individually and collectively. And resilience doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle. … I’m well aware just in the line of work that I do that everyone’s fighting a silent battle on the inside, so even though people are resilient it’s important to remember that.”

Although things have remained fairly steady with her practice, Gwost emphasized that she is just one mental health counselor of many in the Roaring Fork Valley and may not be experiencing or seeing the same things with her clients and case load as other counselors are seeing with theirs.

That’s why the local mental health coordination team — which is comprised of Aspen Strong, Mind Springs Health, the Aspen Hope Center and Pitkin County officials — is including more private mental health practitioners like Gwost into its planning and strategy circle, working to create more of a cohesive, bolstered effort to ensure the entire valley community understands and has access to any mental wellness resources it may need.

“There’s a ton of people in private practice and of those private therapists, we’re working with a lot of people,” Gwost said. “So I think it’s just critically important that we have more open communication to simply support each other and know what’s going on.”

COLLABORATION FOR COMMUNITY

Since the end of March, the mental health coordination team has been working to help residents cope with the increased stress, anxiety and depression they may be feeling as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

With virtual meetings every other week and putting out coordinated messaging on mental wellness, the team has played on each of its member’s strengths to ensure valley residents have the tools they may need to feel mentally and emotionally supported while navigating the pandemic, as previously reported.

Now with the addition of more private providers, Matt McGaugh of Pitkin Human Services, who has stepped up in recent months to help facilitate and lead the mental health coordination group meetings, said the team is honing in on how it can more specifically reach underserved and more at-risk sectors of the population, and better communicate with the valley community as a whole.

“We’re going to try to develop some subgroups to lead that include private providers so that we can start working on action steps like how can we better connect with the Latino community, how can we connect with seniors to make sure they’re OK during this time, how can we help with families that are dealing with the stress of the unknowns of going back to school,” McGaugh said.

“So there are some private providers that are interested in helping with the community effort we’re looking at here, and they really think we need to put an effort and emphasis on messaging for the entire community, not just on how to access services but also more tips and more ideas and more overall awareness around mental health.”

M.J. Faas, executive director of Aspen Strong, echoed McGaugh’s thoughts, stressing that the coordination team is really working to connect with all sectors of the community to better understand what struggles they’re facing and in turn put out resources and information to help.

For example, the team is looking at how it can better reach the Latino and senior communities, educate on healthy coping strategies unlike drinking and drug use and put out more messaging to people not particularly seeking mental health support but who could benefit from tools and tips.

“We really just want to streamline our messaging so that we’re all on the same page and it’s a clear message. It’s just solidified that way and it’s just a support our community needs to see the same messaging from these three organizations over and over and to know we’re on a unified front,” Faas said, referring specifically to Aspen Strong, Mind Springs Health and the Aspen Hope Center.

And while coping strategies and mental wellness messaging has been pushed out by the coordination team organizations pre-COVID and early on in the pandemic, Faas and McGaugh said the group feels it’s important to keep pushing it out even more and to continue to give people mental wellness tools and strategies specific to the pandemic and how its affecting the community in different ways.

“Everybody can have anxiety, everybody can get depressed. … Across the board right now people are experiencing stress that they probably haven’t before,” Faas said. “We really want to get the message out to the community that people may need support, here’s where you can find it and it’s OK, it’s important to take care of yourself and each other.”

CONSISTENT, CONTINUED SUPPORT

One new resource created in light of the pandemic for valley locals is Mind Springs Health’s mental health support line.

Separate from the Western Slope behavioral health provider’s crisis line, the support line (877-519-7505) is meant to serve as a number people can dial if they just need to talk through some stressors or challenges they’re experiencing pandemic related or not, according to peer support specialists Jill Davis and Jason Popish.

“I think the mantra is never worry alone,” Popish said. “Why sit at home and fret or stress out when you could reach out and talk to somebody?”

Davis and Popish, who have been with Mind Springs since 2013 and have both overcome mental health challenges, said that the number of calls to the support line has been pretty steady with peaks and valleys since it launched early on in the pandemic.

They also said calls into the line are broad, ranging from someone who has just lost their job to someone having marital or family problems. But regardless, Davis and Popish have enjoyed talking through struggles and stressors with locals, doing what they can to offer ways to help callers work through the challenges they’re facing.

“Most people feel fairly confident in their ability to navigate life and its ups and downs, and when you throw in just enough additional stressors it feels like you’re at your capacity. We’re there as a society,” Popish explained. “So it’s been enjoyable to talk with individuals and just give some basic tips, tools, tricks to navigate more stressful life.”

Davis expressed similar thoughts.

“I think listening is the big thing because we’re not going to solve the pandemic in one phone call, but if we can be on the other end and support that person that’s helpful in itself,” Davis said.

“Mind Springs has always been an agent of change and adaptability, which we need to do to reach as many people as we can, and I think the support line is one avenue to do that.”

Although locals are consistently utilizing the new mental health support line, Jackie Skramstad, clinical operations manager, said she doesn’t think Mind Springs Health is really seeing a huge influx of people seeking therapy as a result of the pandemic. However, she did say this summer has been busier than last year, but she can’t pinpoint that as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“Even though we’ve seen some increased numbers over last year, whether that’s related to COVID or not remains to be seen. But I think we all know that our community is stressed and I think we all know our community is struggling,” Skramstad said. “There’s irritability, there’s people getting very easily upset with one another in our community and easily angered, and I think these are all symptoms of the level of stress that we’re all under and how we’re trying to deal with that.”

To help locals better deal with this stress they may be experiencing, Skramstad said Mind Springs has worked to offer the community free resources and tools, including its mental health support line, a library of informational videos on a variety of relaxation and coping strategies on the Mind Springs Facebook page, and a back to school toolkit for families posted on its website. There also are two Mind Springs therapists working in Pitkin County schools to support students and families.

Through these resources, Skramstad hopes to better reach people who may not feel they need or may not be ready for traditional therapy but are still experiencing some mental health challenges, and to continue to emphasize the importance of self-care.

And for people who do need therapy but are concerned about the cost, Skramstad said there are valley organizations like the Aspen Community Foundation that offer scholarships to people who may need mental health care but can’t afford it.

Like Skramstad and Gwost, Michelle Meuthing, executive director of the Aspen Hope Center, said she and her staff have seen an increasing need for financial assistance for mental health services, and are determined to work through cost concerns to help locals get the care they need through applying for ACF scholarships and offering sliding pay scales or payment plans.

Meuthing also expressed similar sentiments about seeing an increased summer therapy services caseload compared to years past, particularly among children and families.

“We knew the stress was in the community but we didn’t know how many people would call us because we still sometimes think we’re known in the community as a crisis center,” Meuthing said of the Aspen Hope Center. “But I don’t know, maybe either people really felt like they were in a state of crisis or word of mouth is just getting out there that we do do therapy, so our phone has been ringing a little more.”

Overall, with the increased stress levels in the community and knowledge that the coronavirus pandemic is and has been a prolonged crisis, the mental health coordination team and the members involved emphasized they are working together to ensure Roaring Fork Valley locals know there are professionals available to talk with them, formally and informally, no matter what their struggles or challenges may be — now and over the months to come.

“It kills all of us to hear people say, ‘there are no resources,’ and that translates to us into ‘I don’t know the resources that are out there,’” Meuthing said. “So, I think for us we need to really continue to figure out how do we get the message out.”

mvincent@aspentimes.com


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