Longevity Project: Mental health connected to culture, altitude of mountain communities
IF YOU GO ...
What: Longevity Project: Elevate Your Life featuring National Geographic explorer Mike Lebecki
Panelists: Aspen Olympian Alex Ferreira, local adventurer Christy Mahon, Aspen Strong founder Christina King, Aspen Valley Hospital orthopedist Dr. Tomas Pevny and Aspen Mountain Rescue volunteer Greg Shaffran. Moderator will be Penn Newhard, founder of Backbone Media.
When: 5:30 p.m. Oct. 1
Where: Mountain Chalet, 333 E. Durant Ave.
Tickets: Visit aspen.longevityproject.net
Soon after Jose Saez moved to the Aspen area four years ago, his well-being took a turn for the worse.
Convinced to relocate to the Roaring Fork Valley by a friend he went into business with, Saez said life was good for a little bit.
About a year-and-a-half into the partnership, the business crumbled.
“I wound up homeless with $300 bucks in my pocket, bought a $300 car and that’s how the saga started, I guess,” Saez said. “This is one of the most beautiful places in the world but if you’re not ready for what comes with that beauty, you find yourself in a world of hurt.”
In an upstairs office of the Pitkin County Health and Human Services building, Saez recalled what it was like to go from a stable to unstable mental, financial and housing situation so quickly while Jessica Beaulieu, mental health program administrator for the county, listened.
Now, just a few years later, Saez is working as the Pitkin Area Co-Responder Team peer specialist, helping decriminalize mental illness and getting people in the Aspen area connected with the mental health resources they need.
“It’s perfect. I’m giving back to where I once took from,” Saez said. “I’ve been through the mental health, I’ve been through the addiction, I’ve been through the anger and the pride, so my goal is to break down those barriers and show you that you don’t have to go through what you’re going through, that you’re not alone.”
According to the most recent Regional Community Health Assessment— conducted to help guide public health initiatives in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties from 2018-2022 — people with higher incomes or personal wealth, more years of education, and who live in healthy and safe environments also have longer life expectancies and better overall health outcomes.
In Pitkin County, assessment statistics show locals are set up for longevity: The median family income is over $20,000 more than the state’s, the percentage of adults who have graduated college is higher than surrounding counties and Pitkin County is identified as having a generally safe, healthy environment.
But an aspect of health and longevity across the region not up to par is mental health. Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin county locals identified mental well-being as the top health concern in their communities and as lacking for myriad reasons, including barriers to accessing services and the stigma surrounding mental health.
The Aspen Times, in conjunction with our sister papers the Steamboat Pilot & Today and Summit Daily, is publishing a four-part series on living and thriving in the mountains. The weekly “Longevity Project: Elevate Your Life” series in September will culminate Oct. 1 with a speaker and panel discussion in Aspen.
Elevate Your Life series:
Part 1: A conversation with Mike Libecki, National Geographic explorer
Part 2: How top athlete live, train at altitude
Part 3: Examining mental wellness at altitude
Part 4: General effects of life at 8,000-plus feet
However, for local mental health officials like Beaulieu and Saez, there is an attainable solution to address these concerns: Increasing connectivity within communities and sparking conversation.
“Social support networks are key in suicide prevention and emotional, social and psychological health,” Beaulieu said. She went on to quote the recent regional health assessment, which states 19% of the population across Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties reported not having adequate social or emotional support.
“We attribute this predominately to the tourism culture, which really changes the way people work and live,” Beaulieu said. “It’s more difficult to build a (support) network within your immediate environment because people are hustling constantly to figure out a way to be in this beautiful place.”
Because Aspen, Snowmass and the surrounding communities are tourism hot spots, much of the local workforce is rooted in arts, entertainment, recreation and hospitality services. Roughly 40% of people working in Aspen-Snowmass are employed within these tourism-related industries, and many of these positions are seasonal, leaving gaps in employment for people looking to live in the valley year-round.
“We often see with our seasonal workers that they are riding high all season but then they lose their employee housing when they lose their job at the ski mountain or at a restaurant or wherever, and it’s like ‘Now what?’ ” Beaulieu said.
In Pitkin County, about 10% of the population had a depressive diagnosis between 2013 and 2015, according to the recent regional health assessment. In 2017, the region had a suicide rate of 18.6 per 100,000 people, which is lower than the state’s average rate of 20.3 but higher than the national average of 14.0.
But higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide aren’t unique to Pitkin County or the state of Colorado. Research shows a strong correlation between living in higher altitude communities across the western United States and experiencing mental health challenges.
EXPLORING ALTITUDE’S ROLE IN MENTAL HEALTH
Brent Kious, a psychiatrist with University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City, is one of the researchers who have studied the link between living at high altitude and major depressive disorder, anxiety and suicide.
Kious said data suggests suicide and depression are associated with altitude, noting that suicide rates start to increase more dramatically around 2,000 to 2,500 feet of elevation.
“That doesn’t necessarily imply that the effect of altitude at that height starts to outweigh the impact of other socio-demographic or socioeconomic factors,” Kious emphasized.
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
Other factors aside, Kious said the reason people living at higher altitudes have a higher risk of depression, anxiety or death by suicide is due to less oxygen reaching their brains. This lack of adequate oxygen, or hypoxia, can alter the brain’s ability to store or transport energy and to synthesize serotonin, the neurotransmitter that’s most often implicated in depression, Kious said.
For Kious and other researchers, this strong association between altitude and both depression and suicide rates highlights what’s known as the “paradise paradox.”
“I think although we’ve seen this consistent association with suicide rates and some evidence that moving to higher altitude increases the risk of depression, we also know that mountain communities tend to report higher satisfaction rates with life in general than elsewhere,” Kious said.
“The way I make sense of that is I think maybe living at altitude makes for a more extreme mood, whatever you’re prone to having,” Kious continued. “Maybe moving to altitude will tend to make your natural inclinations greater.”
At the local level, Beaulieu and Saez have seen that paradox play out when accessing mental health resources, too.
They feel that because Aspen area locals know they are living in “paradise,” when a mental health challenge arises they may feel they don’t have a right to complain.
“I’ve witnessed it in all ages of people in this valley where there’s this idea that I’m living the dream, how can I complain?” Bealieu said. “But I also think people don’t seek out services because of the stigma around mental health.”
TRYING TO BRIDGE THE GAP
Like Beaulieu, Christina King, local mental health clinician and founder of the Aspen Strong nonprofit, sees a lack of willingness to and education on how to talk about mental illness and mental health challenges as a major barrier to good mental hygiene, locally and nationally.
That’s why King said she started Aspen Strong, which aims not to be another mental health provider but a connector to all of the resources available in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“In the midst of working in this arena, I really began to notice the lack of community centered approach in addressing the issues behind mental health and suicide,” said King, who runs her own private counseling and consulting practice. “I felt there was a lot of individualization and thought, ‘Why are we not all trying to work together?’ That’s where Aspen Strong came in.”
King also has worked to educate locals on how to have conversations about mental health that associate the term more with maintaining hygiene versus fixing a deficiency.
“It’s like the flu, you’re gonna feel sad sometimes, you’re gonna experience grief, you’re gonna experience anxiety and if you’re not checking up on your mental hygiene, then what happens?” King said. “It’s like what are we doing to floss our brain and be equipped with the tools to work through some of the issues that come our way.”
King, Beaulideau and other mental health professionals throughout Pitkin County are working to change the way locals think of and talk about mental health by sparking these conversations and through programs such as PACT, which aims to connect people with the resources they need to address their mental hygiene before a challenge becomes a crisis.
Although the Aspen area has a long way to go, King, Beaulideau and Saez feel the culture around mental health is changing for the better, but feel it will take the efforts of the entire community to create a more open, proactive approach to maintaining mental well-being.
“We don’t care if you live in a $10 million mansion, we don’t care if you’re sleeping under that tree out there, we’re going to meet you where you’re at. To me, that’s really bridging a big gap,” Saez said. “But it’s going to take everybody coming together saying it’s OK to be sick, it’s OK to not feel like a million bucks today, to make a real difference. It has to be a whole community thing.”
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Even though the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped since the delta variant spike in late August, Eagle County is still experiencing a high level of transmission in the community.