Hope Center enters 10th year of helping Roaring Fork residents deal with crisis
If you are in crisis and need help, call the Aspen Hope Center at 970-925-5858. For more information on the center’s crisis intervention and mental health programs and services, visis ourhopecenter.org.
“The dark work, the hard work, the heart work.”
That is how the jobs of crisis clinicians at the Aspen Hope Center were described in the nonprofit’s 2019 annual report, referring to how staff meet people experiencing varying levels of mental health or social crises where each person is at and work to ensure their immediate and future safety.
“It takes a special heart to do what our staff does and each day we know we bring hope,” Michelle Muething, executive director of the Aspen Hope Center, wrote in the annual report.
This year, the Hope Center — a local nonprofit that provides crisis intervention and mental health services in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties — celebrates its 10th anniversary, honoring the dedication of its staff and continuing its crisis support and education tradition.
“Crisis is an interesting world and unless you really work in it sometimes it’s hard to understand why people would do it,” Muething told The Aspen Times recently. “But it is so rewarding and humbling for the clinicians. … The people we have love what they do and love the community they serve.”
BRINGING CARE TO THE VALLEY
The Aspen Hope Center was born out of a needs assessment conducted in 2009 by the University of Colorado’s Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center on what gaps in mental health care and access to resources existed from Aspen to Parachute, Muething said.
The assessment provided 50 recommendations for improvement and a consulting team organized by the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation, which no longer exists, began looking at how to address them.
“Out of the 50 recommendations, we chose kind of the top five that we thought would dig the deepest, reach the furthest and really make the community feel like something was different,” Muething said.
She had just moved to the valley after working as part of a crisis team and as a consultant for a hospital in the Midwest, and was asked to be a part of this consulting group.
“It was kind of funny because the first recommendation I said is we need a mobile crisis team and that was the kind of team I had come from. So the rest is history, I guess.”
In June 2010, Muething said the Aspen Hope Center started out by creating a 24-hour hotline and a mobile crisis team of clinicians to respond to each call. The team also worked with first responders and law enforcement to better recognize when someone needed mental health or social support versus medical care or hospitalization — ultimately getting people help immediately while keeping them out of an emergency room or psychiatric hospital if they didn’t need to be there and could be stabilized at home instead, Muething said.
She explained it with a “duck in a mud puddle” analogy — say someone is in crisis with family struggles, work struggles, and/or car struggles, they breakdown and they attempt to take their life one day, Muething said. If that person is moved out of their mud puddle and to a facility for a few days to recover, they’ll only return to that mud puddle and all of the things stressing them out.
“That doesn’t solve the problem for a large number of people,” Muething said.
Instead, the Hope Center works to help people — unless they do need treatment at an emergency room or psychiatric hospital — in their homes, meeting with them every day to help “address their mud puddle,” or what drove them to crisis either directly through individualized counseling or indirectly by connecting them with other area resources they may need.
“Instead of taking the duck out of the mud puddle, washing the duck off only to send it right back to the mud puddle, we just jump right into the mud puddle with them and help them clean it up,” Muething said.
Sandy Iglehart, president of the Aspen Hope Center board of directors and one of the center’s founding community members, feels the drive to meet people where they are at and provide this mobile crisis care has made all of the difference in the Pitkin County area.
The year before the Hope Center was created, Iglehart recalls there being a multitude of local suicides, including her daughter Courtenay’s, and wanting to do something to address it.
“We had the highest rate of suicides in the state at that point in 2009, I think there were nine suicides that year and nobody was really talking about it or putting a voice to a family,” Iglehart said.
She was asked to speak up about Courtenay’s suicide and struggles with mental health in hopes of encouraging other to be more open about their mental wellness.
“That was the beginning of my journey of healing and of trying to honor my daughter’s memory in some way by eradicating this horrible shame and stigma that still 11 years later surrounds mental health issues and suicide.”
Since the start of the Aspen Hope Center, Iglehart said there have been a lot of ups and downs. The center has had a few financial scares that jeopardized its future a few times, but overall in her eyes it has been extremely successful in supporting people in crisis, educating others on how to help their loved ones in crisis and hopefully preventing future crises and suicides as a result.
“Mental health and wellness is so important to the fabric of this community,” Iglehart said. “I just think we’ve made an enormous difference in this valley and beyond. … It’s astounding because I truly believe if my daughter had the Hope Center or something like the Hope Center, she would probably be alive today.”
10 YEARS OF COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS
Over the past decade, both Iglehart and Muething emphasized that the Aspen Hope Center has worked to “stay in its lane,” providing immediate support to area locals in crisis in several ways: through its 24-hour “hopeline”; crisis intervention and stabilization program; individual counseling and support groups; community education; and school-based programs.
These pillars of crisis care at the Hope Center are anchored on a “boots on the ground” approach and rely on a multitude of community partnerships with various organizations — including law enforcement, first responders and schools — to be successful, Iglehart and Muething said.
“We cannot be all things to all people, and we know that,” Iglehart said. “We’ve known from the beginning that we have to focus on what the crisis is, then find the resources in this community because there is a plethora. … That’s why the Hope Center has become so successful, because of the community partnerships and having the resources.”
For the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, the Aspen Hope Center has served specifically as a resource for law enforcement, first responders and other witnesses to local traumatic incidents like fatal car accidents or search and rescues, as explained by Alex Burchetta, chief deputy of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
Burchetta said over the past several years he feels the Hope Center has helped shift the department culture so county deputies feel more comfortable talking about mental health challenges they face and their overall mental wellness.
“We train from a physical standpoint but we don’t often spend a lot of time on coping skills and how to deal with some of these more traumatic events,” Burchetta said. “To have the Hope Center as a resource for us to assist our deputies is really critical.”
But the Aspen Hope Center doesn’t just work with law enforcement and doesn’t just have roots in Pitkin County. The center’s care network extends to Eagle and Garfield counties, too, and more than a dozen tri-county area schools.
The Eagle branch of the Hope Center is the newest extension of its crisis services, completing its first full year in operation last year.
“We’ve really galvanized the community around the idea that mental health isn’t something that you should be afraid of, it’s something you should be able to talk about,” said Chris Montera, CEO for Eagle County Paramedic Services. “I think that’s been one of the highlights of having the Hope Center here is that it’s opened up avenues for us to really present the ideas that mental health shouldn’t be stigmatized because everybody goes through it.”
Montera explained that after the Eagle County community experienced a very tragic suicide in February 2018, officials decided they needed to do something differently and partner with the Aspen Hope Center to help the county’s community paramedics with its crisis response and intervention.
And since creating this partnership, Montera said Eagle County has reduced ambulance transport for patients in crisis by 74%, saving patients money and better connecting them with whatever community support they need.
“A lot of times people in crisis aren’t in crisis because they have a mental health issue. They’re in crisis because they have social determinants of health issues, like they can’t make rent or they may not have enough food,” Montera said. “So our community paramedics and crisis clinicians can really intervene at that intersection where physical health needs meet mental health and help them in any way that is possible.”
Outside of partnering with law enforcement and first responders, the Hope Center also partners with schools.
Muething said she discovered the great need for crisis care and access to mental health services in the tri-county area school districts within the first year of the Hope Center, as a large, consistent chunk of calls coming in were from the Basalt area schools.
Now less than a decade later, 17 Hope Center clinicians will work directly in 17 area schools this fall to provide crisis and mental health services, and offer prevention education programs.
“We say oftentimes that school districts don’t provide therapy, but with these guys, because they are therapists we are able to partner with them so they can provide that more acute and high level of service,” said Patrick McGinty, special education director for the Roaring Fork School District of working with Aspen Hope Center clinicians.
“They create treatment plans and do things that are a little more intense for our kids and so it’s so nice to have them so easily accessible.”
According to the Hope Center’s 2019 annual report, clinicians reported 1,031 interactions with students, and 12% of students assessed were high risk for self-harm in Roaring Fork Valley schools.
School-based clinicians spend 90% of their time working one-on-one or in groups with students, the report says. There are clinicians who work in Basalt elementary, middle and high schools, Carbondale Community School, Roaring Fork High School and Ross Montessori. There are not clinicians in any of the Aspen School District schools, Muething said.
For McGinty, having Hope Center clinicians in the Roaring Fork district schools in a more permanent capacity versus only after a major incident involving students, like a car accident or suicide, gives students the opportunity to access professional mental health resources and wellness tools at school for free, which they may not have access to otherwise.
“The teenage years as definitely challenging years and I think that’s where we see a lot of students that show significant depression or anxiety or who are dealing with other mental health challenges,” McGinty said.
“Having a more team support seems to have a positive impact and I think we’re able to catch kids and engage with them a little bit earlier. … In the rural community that we have it’s really nice to have a team like the Hope Center we can rely on consistently in a timely manner. We’re really fortunate to have them in this valley.”
THE CENTER MOVING FORWARD
Yes, the Aspen Hope Center has primarily kept the same programs and mission since it was founded 10 years ago. Yes, the center specializes in crises. But no, it was not anticipating a curveball like the coronavirus pandemic that forced it to adapt some of its operations and has affected most aspects of life in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.
Over the first two months of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Hope Center did not see a surge in crisis calls or much of a drop compared to years past. However, the nonprofit joined forces with Mind Springs Health and Aspen Strong in late March to collaboratively help residents cope with the increased stress, anxiety and depression they may be feeling due to the COVID-19 crisis, as previously reported.
In May and June, the Hope Center has seen an increase in crisis calls, on-scene evaluations and individual counseling needs related to the pandemic, according to Karmen Pittenger, a crisis clinician who has been with the Hope Center for more than six years.
“We are seeing a lot more people who are being challenged by COVID,” Pittenger said. “Whether it’s financial stress, whether it’s relationship stress, academic stress, we’re seeing all of that.”
When asked what the Aspen Hope Center strives to accomplish over the next decade, Pittenger, Muething and Iglehart said more of the same.
Muething wants to see the center grow deeper not wider, doing more to support locals in the tri-county area on the verge of crisis but also to support other communities statewide in starting up similar centers of their own.
Iglehart hopes someday to replace the word “intervention” in crisis intervention with “prevention” through continued work in area schools and providing community education opportunities.
And Pittenger wants to see Hope Center-like crisis centers all over Colorado and to just focus on continuing to offer free crisis services to anyone who may need them.
“We never want to make anything a barrier to somebody getting help and I can’t stress that enough,” Pittenger said.
Pittenger acknowledged that being a crisis clinician isn’t easy. Some calls and on-scene responses are harder than others and the job isn’t something most family members and friends can really understand.
But she said that the Aspen Hope Center has a tight-knit team that looks out for each other no matter what and that it’s been an honor to work for the organization — which she plans to keep on doing.
“The reason that I stay honestly is because to walk beside somebody who may be in their darkest moment of their life, and for them to allow you to be beside them and to support them is such a privilege,” Pittenger said.
“That’s what keeps me going, that’s what keeps me at the Hope Center is watching people’s lives change, and you can see it. … It’s just amazing to watch that person change, get their feet underneath them and move forward. To be there for that is an honor.”