Mental health workers cope with cuts |

Mental health workers cope with cuts

Chad Abraham
Viewed from outside, staff members at Colorado West Counseling Services hold a morning meeting recently at their Glenwood Springs location. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

Inside the Colorado West Counseling Services office in Glenwood Springs, it is easy to observe circles of support, frustration and, above all, hope.On Tuesdays, a visitor to the Pitkin Avenue office, which looks more like a home from the outside, will see a literal circle: the weekly staff meeting of people devoted to helping improve the lives of the valley’s mentally ill. A critical lack of resources is hampering the ability of local social workers’ to help the mentally ill, and a resigned resilience fills the workplace. The group carries onward.The subject of discussion is a young, drug-addicted mother suffering from paranoia. She missed two meetings with Colorado West social worker Bob Nuffer, who had called her and gone to her house. But still no contact has been made.The 10 people at the meeting, including social workers, case managers and office staffers, bat around ideas on how to connect with the woman. Perhaps go to her home earlier than usual? A good idea, except hanging around her residence may stoke her paranoia, one person says.Trying to help the mentally ill from Aspen to Parachute is an immeasurably difficult task. And the job has gotten much tougher of late.The budgets of state agencies across Colorado have been sliced in the last several years, the result of slumping local and national economies. Colorado West and similar groups have seen their funding reduced by 30 percent in the past three years, according to the Colorado Division of Mental Health. And trying to provide services far away from Front Range cities exacerbates the situation, says Lee Snyder, program coordinator for Colorado West’s adult community support office.”Certainly we lack in resources that might be in a more urban area,” he says.

The Roaring Fork Valley is perilously short of mental health resources. Colorado West has just one bed at its crisis stabilization unit in its offices on Highway 82 east of Glenwood, and that is used mainly for people recovering from drug addiction. Other options for those needing a place overnight include a few beds at Valley View and St. Mary’s hospitals. But after that, few alternatives exist.Colorado West’s housing program for the mentally ill has been hammered by the budget cuts, meaning some people have to go an entire year before they can be given shelter. The state psychiatric hospital in Pueblo allocates the equivalent of six beds for the entire Western Slope, Snyder says.”It gets pretty severe [with] some of these funding cuts,” he says. “We had more of a housing program a year ago than we do now.”There’s just less money and more competition for it.”All this at a time of heightened focus on mental health after a high number of suicides in the valley so far this year, including the high-profile death of author Hunter S. Thompson.At least five people in the area have killed themselves in the first few months of 2005. Both Pitkin and Garfield counties have suicide rates well above both state and national averages, according the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Colorado West is not alone in its problems with budget cuts, says Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.

“The economy took a downturn in 2001, and we had significant cuts to our department,” she says. “The Legislature sets the budget within the revenues that they have, and by law the budget has to balance every year.”Which programs face cuts, and by how much, is decided primarily by a legislative joint budget committee. Committee members hold hearings and study figures before drafting a budget bill that the General Assembly votes on.”The joint budget committee was put in the very, very difficult position of having to cut,” McDonough says. “You can look at our department alone and say, ‘OK, who is less deserving of cuts than someone else. Child care? Child welfare? Juvenile corrections?’ That’s a very difficult position to be in and not something that the members of the joint budget committee took lightly.”Things are improving, but not as fast as one would like.”Hope is such a large part of everyday lives at the Glenwood office, and there is plenty on the horizon. Responding to the growth of the Latino population in the valley, Colorado West has a bilingual therapist on staff. There have been great advances in assessment methods in recent years, allowing children showing signs of a lifelong illness to get counseling and therapy much sooner. And outreach services are also improving.”We have a blueprint as far as what we’d like to develop,” Snyder says. “From an outpatient perspective, we want to develop a network of psycho-social rehabilitative services. A person in recovery can access these different phases.”Another sign of hope lies in Rifle, where a clubhouse called Hopeful Heart brings together those with past or present mental illness. Jim Thayn, who was present at the Colorado West staff meeting, spearheaded the effort to open Hopeful Heart in 2001. Its mission, according to a brochure, is “to decrease isolation and increase socialization opportunities.” The clubhouse also works to “increase recovery opportunities and move people away from disability to leading productive and active lives by showing compassion and unconditional acceptance.”

An underlying result of meeting regularly for Colorado West is the support and knowledge each member of the staff is able to offer to one another. Such camaraderie helps alleviate the acute stress of the mental-health profession in the mountains.”I’ve worked here 15 years, and some of the people I’ve worked with, we support each other through it and respect each other professionally. We’ve seen some positive results,” Snyder says. “Certainly when you have clients who feel empowered enough to hire a Realtor, look for a piece of property and get enough support to manage a mortgage payment – it’s gratifying. We get our strokes.”As they should.Need help?If you or someone you know would like to speak with a counselor at Colorado West Counseling Services, call the Adult Community Support Office at 348-0215. The office, which is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., is at 812 Pitkin Ave. in Glenwood Springs. For more information on Hopeful Hearts, a community clubhouse for the mentally ill in Rifle, call 1-970-625-5761. Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is

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