Mental health providers evolve their support during COVID-19
The Aspen Times is hosting the next webinar in a weekly series addressing the questions and impacts of the coronavirus at 2 p.m. Thursday. This week’s webinar will focus on issues of mental health during the coronavirus outbreak. Topics include coping strategies during isolation, ways to access resources, and ways to recognize when individuals might be struggling with mental health. The webinar will be streamed live on aspentimes.com/coronavirus and on The Aspen Times Facebook page.
Since Mind Springs Health clinician Katie Hundertmark started responding to mental health-related emergency calls with area law enforcement agencies last summer, she’s aimed to connect with a broader scope of locals in need and to help change the way mental health challenges are both viewed and approached community-wide.
Months later amid the COVID-19 crisis, Hundertmark said that mission hasn’t waivered though it is being carried out a little differently.
“COVID-19 is presenting certain unique challenges to our operations as well as to the operations of our community partners,” Hundertmark said of PACT and Mind Springs Health. “So far we’ve been able to rise to the occasion and we’re really thinking outside of the box in order to keep our operations running smoothly.”
Hundertmark is the sole co-responder, or licensed mental health clinician with the Pitkin Area Co-Responder Team (PACT). The relatively new county program kicked off last June and allows mental health professionals like Hundertmark to assist and respond with Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass law enforcement to calls where mental health challenges may exist, as previously reported.
Since the impacts of and response to the COVID-19 crisis ramped up in the Roaring Fork Valley earlier this month, Hundertmark said the PACT program has taken a more virtual approach, with her often responding to the scene of mental health-related emergency calls through FaceTime versus riding along in-person.
Over the past few weeks, Hundertmark said she hasn’t noticed any serious or significant negative mental health trends related to the coronavirus pandemic yet. But she did say she is continuing to reach out to more at-risk locals and clients, encouraging them to focus on what they can control and to maintain as much connection with others as possible.
Hundertmark also said as the “stay at home” order and social distancing requirements continue, a surge in mental health challenges could arise, but she feels confident in the ability of Mind Springs Health, the PACT program and other area providers to respond.
“Ultimately there is a lot of stress and anxiety. There’s been a lot of loss so I feel like there’s a lot of grieving happening,” Hundertmark said. “But if we’re able to identify the things that we have the ability to change or manage, such as taking care of our basic needs, it naturally promotes more feelings of safety and security.”
CONTINUING TO SERVE
From a law enforcement perspective, Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass officials haven’t seen a huge spike in mental health calls in general or related to COVID-19 specifically.
However, law enforcement officials did say their day-to-day interactions with locals often include talk of the varying stressors and anxieties people are experiencing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and even expressed that some of the arrests and citations made may be related to this negative mental health aspect of the crisis.
“I would not say we’ve seen an increase, it’s been as steady as it usually is,” said Jesse Steindler, patrol captain for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. “But we do hear a lot about people’s anxiety. Not because they call us about it but in the sense that coronavirus is on everybody’s mind.”
For Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office deputies, the goal is to continue to support the county community, maintain a strong presence even though in-person contact is more limited and overall call volume has dropped, and look out for each other during this uncertain and often stressful time, Steindler said.
For Aspen and Snowmass police, the goals are similar.
According to Linda Consuegra, assistant Aspen police chief, calls levels have stayed consistent across the board and officers are continuing to make a lot of referrals to PACT. The department’s health and human services officer, Braulio Jerez, connects with Hundertmark multiple times a day and keeps a close eye on calls for service related to mental health, Consuegra said.
From what she’s seen, the COVID-19 crisis has brought on a host of different stressors related to things like finances and physical health that Aspen police do their best to help with, mainly by connecting locals with the proper resources.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve seen a rise in mental health calls, just some more calls consistent with what’s going on right now,” Consuegra said. “Our goal is to be patient, give space and see how we can help people who might just need to talk about how they’re feeling.”
A MORE ALL-ENCOMPASSING APPROACH
Like local law enforcement agencies, valley mental health providers also haven’t noticed a huge spike in mental health crises related to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, providers are ensuring they’re prepared for a potential surge and are continuing to shift the way they support the entire valley community during the COVID-19 crisis to ensure locals have the mental coping strategies they may need.
“We’re constantly listening and looking at how we can take the pulse of the community to better understand what the needs are,” said Christina King, founder of Aspen Strong and a licensed professional counselor.
King said Aspen Strong is serving as the community outreach lead for the county’s mental health coordination team formed in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The team also includes the Aspen Hope Center, Mind Springs Health and public health officials from Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.
While the team’s initiatives and collaborative programming will continue to evolve, King said as of now Aspen Hope Center is leading the support for first responders, public health departments and health care workers; Mind Springs Health is leading support for the general public; and the whole team is working with other mental health providers to start targeted support groups for essential workers to ensure all locals have access to the mental wellness strategies they may need based on what they’re going through. (For more information on local COVID-19-related mental health initiatives, visit aspenstrong.org/resources/covid-19/).
At the larger community level, Mind Springs Health has hosted a weekly “Peace in the Pandemic” Facebook live series and launched a support line for all 10 counties it serves to answer any mental wellness questions associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
“Mind Springs Health is a community mental health center, so while we have individual clients the whole community is really our client,” said Jackie Skramstad, clinical operations manager for Mind Springs. “We want people to know about the valuable resources out there that anyone can easily access.”
Moving forward, Skramstad and Hundertmark said valley mental health providers will continue to adapt their services to best meet the needs of the community at large. But the women also feel this COVID-19 crisis and the ways providers like Mind Springs Health are tweaking their services because of it could also positively impact the community once life goes back to normal.
“I think because we are collaborating with all of our partners, working really closely together to develop resources, we’re naturally going forward going to be better equipped for future challenges or this challenge if it continues,” Hundertmark said.
“Connection is a big part of it… This is something that’s affecting every member of this community and this is a global issue so I think focusing on that shared experience has the potential to really bring the community together.”
With many lingering questions still surrounding the fate of Aspen’s historic Old Powerhouse, City Council decided during Monday’s work session to hold off on providing staff direction on moving the preservation project forward until more information can be presented.