Progress in youth mental health rides a rising tide in the Roaring Fork Valley
Progress in youth mental health rides a rising tide in the Roaring Fork Valley
It doesn’t take long, talking to students who care deeply about the mental health of their peers and their community, to see the way Roaring Fork Valley youth have invested themselves in making change happen.
They’re well aware of the statistics and the talking points: that the U.S. Surgeon General declared a “crisis” in youth mental health in December of 2021; that the Roaring Fork Valley has a higher-than-average rate of suicide; that despite Aspen’s glossy sheen, people here struggle with mental health and substance use compounded by the valley’s stressors; that despite so many resources, there are still significant gaps between the care and support that is available and that which is accessible.
They know it’s true because they’re living it. And they’re making efforts — in workshops and training sessions, in school and after class — to ensure that moving forward, things will be different.
“I want to try to help everybody,” said Khira Ferguson, an eighth grader at Aspen Middle School. “I put everybody before myself, … (because) I know how it feels to know that nobody’s there.”
She also knows how good it can feel to provide support, to be the student that others feel they can go to in times of need.
“The weight of my own problems kind of drifts off when I know other people are happy, because I tried helping them,” Ferguson said.
‘TO GIVE HOPE AND GET HOPE’
Still, that’s a lot to bear for a 14-year-old. And Ferguson isn’t the only one taking it on.
She was one of 14 middle and high schoolers from the valley who convened Feb. 10 for a “For You, By You” workshop — part four of a five-part series at Aspen’s Here House — to put local kids at the forefront of the conversation about youth mental health.
After a morning of brainstorming and vulnerable conversation, half of the participants spent the afternoon with Here House co-founder Michaela Carpenter developing an expansive outreach initiative that would encourage their peers to ask for help when they need it: think posters, social media accounts and rubber band bracelets a la Livestrong for solidarity.
The other half spent the afternoon with Aspen City Councilman Skippy Mesirow cold-calling local elected officials and organization leaders to get the pulse on community needs and questions. They’ll use that information, plus other think tanking, to develop a panel discussion and presentation for the community that will wrap up the series at a date to be determined.
For Elleana Bone, a 17-year-old junior at Aspen High School, it was a way to make change as much on a peer-to-peer level as much as a community one. She said she found in the workshop an opportunity to share her own struggles and successes with other kids in the same boat, to say, “I’m on my way out, you can totally get there.”
“To see other people who are just starting their journey, or (are) in the middle of it, and just kind of (be) able to see the progress and able to give hope and get hope — I think that we should be doing it once a week,” she added.
‘ALL THE HELP WE CAN GET’
In a way, students like Bone already are.
She’s one of 12 high schoolers who have spent the better part of two-and-a-half months preparing to become peer counselors every Thursday afternoon at the Aspen Chapel in sessions supported by Dr. Jennifer Johnston-Jones, a local psychologist with decades of experience in the field.
The group goes by the acronym ROOTS — Roaring Fork Organization of Therapeutic Services — and the first round of participants will “graduate” this week with training in “Question, Persuade, Refer” suicide prevention and a primer in dialectical behavioral therapy, Johnston-Jones said.
Additional sessions and support will be available for the newly-minted peer counselors as they begin taking on “clients” and as the next class of trainees begins.
Johnston-Jones’ daughter, Aspen High School junior Océane Jones, founded the group in response to the suicide of an Aspen Middle School student, in September of last year, the 17-year-old Jones said.
It is ostensibly a training program designed to equip students with the tools to support other students, but the sessions have also served as a kind of support group for the participants to share their own challenges with mental health.
The space is one that allows and encourages vulnerability; still, Jones was surprised by just how willing participants were to talk.
“I didn’t imagine everyone was going to be so open about all the problems, struggles that they’d face throughout their lifetime, but everyone was very open about mental health issues they’ve been struggling with,” Jones said. “I think that made the group a lot more connected.”
The idea isn’t to turn high schoolers into adolescent therapists by any means; they’re still very much encouraged and trained to refer their peers to professionals. But a training program like ROOTS can give them the resources and skills to provide mental health support in a role that many of them don’t believe that the adults in their lives can fill, Jones said.
Seeking professional help can also be a daunting task, according to ROOTS participant Hannah Smith, a 18-year-old Aspen High School senior.
“(For) teenagers, it can be intimidating to reach out to therapy services, and that’s why I think it’s very fundamental that people their own age are equipped to deal with mental health issues,”
And at a critical moment, Johnston-Jones said, “we need all the help we get.”
“We need all hands on deck,” Johnston-Jones said. “This isn’t a time for someone only to talk with people if they have a degree. People need — especially kids — they need to talk about it.”
All the more so when students feel a barrier — of intimidation, as Smith mentioned, or fear of consequences, or a lack of relatability — that keeps them from reaching out to the people with degrees when they need support.
“Especially most of my friends, they don’t go to grownups,” said Cade Feast, a 14-year-old Aspen Middle School Student who participated in the workshop at Here House last month.
“If they ask for help, it’s usually between the friend group, and what stays there stays there, or they’ll talk to someone younger.”
“I don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking to an adult,” Feast added. “I don’t necessarily like it, because a lot of them don’t have the understanding of what another (young) person is going through. It’s a lot easier to talk to someone that can have a better understanding.”
Feast’s classmate and fellow workshop participant Khira Ferguson said that the lack of trust and feeling of misunderstanding may keep some kids from seeking help even with the most qualified and compassionate professionals.
“It’s really hard because we’re going through a lot of things that adults went through when they were older. … You could find the most perfect therapist in the world to come and be a school counselor — we’re not going to trust them,” Ferguson said.
Sonja Linman gets that. She worked in public education for nearly three decades and now leads crisis prevention trainings and community outreach for the Aspen Hope Center; she said that factors like substance use or violence that can be a detriment to kids’ mental health today have a degree of “potency” that adults today didn’t encounter when they were growing up.
“Kids are being challenged by the world that we have created for them in a way that is exceptionally difficult for them, and then the isolation creates less trust with adults,” Linman said. “And so they really lean on each other, and sometimes what they lean on is sand. … Coping mechanisms come with guidance. They don’t just show up.”
Basalt High School Counselor Kelly Donnelly has seen that too; the pandemic is a factor, but the challenges students are dealing with now are the product of more than just two years of turbulence.
“In the past few years, or even the past 10 years, there’s been a huge increase in the amount of students just needing some extra services,” said Donnelly, who has been a school counselor in the Basalt community for 19 years.
The pandemic’s isolation exacerbated mental health challenges that Donnelly said she was already seeing on the rise before 2020: “suicidal ideation, self-harming, eating disorders, depression, anxiety” are now coupled with the trauma of COVID-19, she said.
But there is also more help than there used to be, in the form of in-school clinicians and peer counselors and outside-of-school resources like the ROOTS group.
Students also seem to be more willing to talk about mental health and seek out help these days, Donnelly said. That, she’s “100%” certain of.
The pandemic may well have nudged more students in that direction of open dialogue, said 16-year-old Gabby Yturri, an Aspen High School junior who also participated in the ROOTS training.
“I think that the change is going to come when people are open about being in pain, and that’s OK, and I think that this generation has had an easier time being open. … With COVID, and everything, we are just sick of struggling alone,” Yturri said.
It’s a recent shift, according to Yturri, and it gives her hope that the efforts of her peers now will have a lasting impact for younger kids, too.
“I think that people are so much better than we think they are. … I never really was able to have open conversations about mental health at school until recently, and I think that is inspiring,” Yturri said. “And I’m hoping that that will change Aspen High School and give younger grades hope for more peaceful and happy interactions at school.”
The challenge lies in bridging the gap between open conversations among students and open conversations between students and adults, said Aspen Middle School Principal Amy Kendziorski.
“I think there’s a code of silence amongst kids that we have to break down for it to be a healthy school community, and so (we’re) really teaching kids, you know, it’s OK to handle some things on your own,” Kendziorski said. “Without a doubt, that’s part of being an adolescent and figuring it out, but there’s certain things that you really do (need help with and) it’s easier to ask for help when you’re not the kid who needs help.”
It’s a balance between emphasizing the importance of peer-to-peer support while also ensuring that kids aren’t bearing all the weight of their peers’ struggles, especially when those struggles may lead to self-harm, according to Donnelly.
“Our youth are the ones who are going to intervene long before adults do, so we try to hone in that message of, ‘You guys are the eyes and ears out there, and you have a responsibility, just like you’d have a responsibility for providing aid if someone got into a serious accident or something happened along those lines,'” Donnelly said.
With the caveat, Linman noted, of recognizing that ability has its limits: If you saw someone in need of surgery, you’d take them to an emergency room, not try to conduct it yourself.
Aspen Middle School is one of many institutions in the valley that have partnered with the Aspen Hope Center to help youth and adults offer support to one another and identify when it’s time to call in an professional to intervene. Linman, who organizes those trainings, said that nearly 2,200 people have participated in less than a year; that count includes schools as well as other groups and organizations.
Still these outreach efforts are a work in progress. Kendziorski observed that an Aspen Hope Center “We Can Talk” suicide prevention training for parents in December was “woefully under-attended,” and students at Aspen Middle School and Aspen High School said in interviews that not everyone takes the student-oriented trainings seriously.
But a session that impacts even one student is still a worthwhile endeavor, Donnelly and Kendziorski believe. Kendziorski said she has seen the value in that firsthand in Feast, her student who showed an earnest interest in referring someone he knew to help after he participated in one of the Aspen Hope Center sessions.
“To me, that’s a win. It was the right thing because man, even if he would be the only kid that sought out something, fabulous — do it more,” Kendziorski said. “I think we have to normalize more of that work over time, and I think we have to find ways to get more parent involvement in those pieces.”
It isn’t the easiest nut to crack.
“It’s definitely a polarized community in terms of families who want to talk about mental health and wellness, and families who don’t. … We have loud voices on both sides of, ‘you shouldn’t talk about it, you should talk about it, you should do more, you should never do it,'” she said.
Linman recognizes those challenges: A rising tide lifts all boats, sure, but it makes waves, too.
“All sorts of people who are getting involved in the ideas of accessing mental health for youth, and supporting our families and recognizing the importance of collaboration and resource allocation, we have that rising, and what a beautiful thing,” Linman said.
“And at the same time, we’re human, so with that rises all of our misunderstandings, our complexities of relationships, our personal interpretations, our perspectives, our own interests, and all of those things then make it even more difficult to make decisions when you have such interest, and such skin in the game,” she added.
Progress is happening, even if it doesn’t always seem that way, she said. But if it’s going to keep moving, it will need to happen at a systems level, involving families, communities and schools alike, Linman and Kendziorski both said.
Linman sees it as a Venn diagram, in which the needs of those groups overlap and in which each group has tiers of needs: prevention education for all, intervention for those who need more support, response for those who are in an immediate crisis.
“I hope that we will prioritize these issues, and then come together with the grace that it takes when we are in a messy transformative process. … We bring people together, and we raise each other up, and we support each other in finding the solutions that are sustainable for all,” Linman said.
“If we can come to the table with that,” she added, “I have great hope.”