Valley’s “resource rich” mental health community helps counter discouraging system
Specialized groups, community mental health centers both play roles in meeting local needs
The system isn’t working.
That much is clear after a six-month investigation by the Colorado News Collaborative that revealed the state’s mental health safety net is “failing” Coloradans through a lack of meaningful oversight to ensure state-funded mental health centers provide the services communities need.
COLab also found that Mind Springs Health — one of 17 community mental health centers that are together paid more than $437 million a year in tax dollars from the state of Colorado to provide behavioral health services in 10 Western Slope counties, including Pitkin and Garfield — is a particular sore spot. Eagle County got so frustrated that it formed a separate community mental health center altogether to meet the needs Mind Springs isn’t; Summit County, where officials have been vocal critics of Mind Springs, is severing ties with Mind Springs and plans to join Eagle County’s new center instead.
Hans Lutgring, the outpatient program director for Mind Springs’ Glenwood Springs outpost, knows there is a greater need for mental health services in the Roaring Fork Valley than the region’s community mental health center can meet on its own.
“I’ll be super comfortable and clear saying that the demand for our services far outweighs our capacity … but I think that every single behavioral health care entity here in the county, let alone the Western Slope, is challenged by, ‘we’ve got more demand than we have capacity and bandwidth (for) services,’” Lutgring said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or considering suicide, there are 24/7 hotlines locally and nationally:
Aspen Hope Center: Call 970-925-5858.
Colorado Crisis Services: Call 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.
Mind Springs Health: Call 970-201-4299 to reach the assessment for admissions team.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255.
This is not particularly encouraging news, according to Chelsea Carnoali, a mental health analyst with Pitkin County Public Health.
“It is really, really challenging when someone’s at a very vulnerable place, and really needing those services, and when there’s a barrier of finding something — when there’s the barrier of having the courage and investment, especially if someone’s in the throes of depression or really struggling with whatever mental health issue and outside cause that might be,” Carnoali said.
Carnoali recognizes the value in identifying those barriers and issues that need to be addressed. She also expressed concern that hearing about or living through those discouraging experiences might deter people from seeking help.
That would be the very opposite outcome of what mental health officials and advocates have been aiming for in their work to reduce stigma around seeking help and promote a culture shift in the way the Roaring Fork Valley approaches mental health, she said, which is why she and others in the valley’s mental health community continue to promote a message of seeking help through one of an abundance of local resources.
Mind Springs is “not the end all be all,” Carnoali said. “There (are) options.”
Gabe Cohen, a former Mind Springs client and employee, experienced the frustration of the system firsthand. He’s in recovery from addiction; when he sought services at Mind Springs, he said he faced long wait times and would relapse between appointments.
“I remember going there because I wanted help and then leaving there anxiety-stricken” by the lengthy process he would have to face to continue getting services there, he said.
That shouldn’t be interpreted as a reflection of the people who work for Mind Springs so much as the system they work within, Cohen said.
“I have friends at Mind Springs. … I think they hire some great people who do help and want to help and have big hearts,” Cohen said.
Cohen has since founded the Discovery Cafe, a resource center at the Colorado Mountain College Rifle Campus for people who are in recovery from addiction, living with mental health challenges, experiencing homelessness or other hardships. There are recovery classes and support systems but also food, open gym and other services.
The Discovery Cafe isn’t a substitute for clinical care. But it helps fill the gaps and offer support to those who need it while they’re waiting for their chance for more formalized care, Cohen said.
Aspen Hope Center’s Michelle Muething sees “benefit and merit” in having both a community mental health center and specialized services to assist where needed.
Muething is the executive director of the Hope Center, which specializes in crisis response services and crisis prevention education. It’s just one piece of a pie that includes so many agencies that focus on patient care as well as those that offer other support systems for people in need.
Kayla Bailey, the Aspen outpatient program director for Mind Springs, considers the valley’s community of mental health providers to be a “resource rich” ecosystem.
“I think that we have a really amazing community that puts a lot of stock and value in making sure that our community is stable, specifically (with) their mental health,” Bailey said.
Yes, there are still needs going unmet, Bailey acknowledged. That’s particularly true for people who aren’t at high risk for a crisis or other severe mental health challenges and who do have insurance because there are a limited number of providers who accept insurance in the valley; those low-risk insured clients may have to wait a few weeks for an appointment, whereas someone in crisis could get services much sooner.
But there is also a willingness to help.
“I believe that there are enough resources that we can get through this, and enough people who care and have the resources to create resources if they’re not there,” Bailey said.
In Aspen, the Mind Springs team led by Kayla Bailey recognizes that there are many other resources in the valley to support community mental health, giving them the chance to zero in on supporting people on Medicaid and high-need, low-income “indigent” populations. That wasn’t always the case.
“I think in the past, we may have worked more towards trying to be everything for everybody,” Bailey said. The focus has shifted toward “making sure that we aren’t overlapping and that we all do stay in our lane of what that is.”
“This community is really unique in the sense that there’s so much collaboration. … I feel like everybody’s so supportive and compassionate that if there’s something that we need, I can reach out to somebody else and say, ‘Hey, can you help with this client? Or can you help with these needs?’” Bailey said.
At the Aspen Hope Center, Michelle Muething likewise sees the value in a diverse and specialized network of mental health resources.
As the executive director of a nonprofit that specializes in crisis, she said she has turned down requests from some regions to offer other services like detox because she recognized the pitfall of a “jack of all trades” approach: becoming a master of none.
“By me staying in my lane and not trying to be the savior to a whole community, it illuminated where the remaining gaps were, and the people who were passionate about those gaps, started to step forward to fill what was left,” Muething said. “If we (at the Hope Center) had taken it all on, we would have sunk, and we would have been good at nothing — we would have been halfway mediocre at everything.”
Meeting the needs of the community doesn’t just look like mental health centers like Mind Springs or crisis specialists like Aspen Hope, Muething said.
“One of my soap boxes is that when people talk about mental health, they go, ‘Hope Center, Mind Springs, Aspen Strong,’ and I go ‘and, and, and, and,’” Muething said.
It also entails all the organizations that offer counseling and support systems outside of the patient care umbrella.
Muething named organizations like Aspen-based Pathfinders, which provides counseling and support for grief, loss and illness, or WindWalkers, a therapeutic equestrian center in Carbondale. Ascendigo Autism Services in Carbondale offers in-home behavioral therapy and in-school consultations in addition to adventures and life enrichment for people on the autism spectrum; Mountain Valley Developmental Services offers support for individuals with developmental disabilities. The Aspen-based Buddy Program pairs adult mentors with local kids to create another layer of a support system for youth.
“I could go on and on and on and on with the multitude of entities that have mental health components and what they’re doing,” Muething said.
Aspen Strong, a mental health advocacy nonprofit, maintains an extensive directory of more than 100 providers and resources between Aspen and Parachute at aspenstrong.org/therapist-directory. The directory has filters available for location, speciality, insurance coverage and payment methods and age group.
Muething wants to be clear that the situation isn’t “hunky dory.” Identifying the issues in how the state’s community mental health system operates and highlighting the gaps that do exist in services is crucial to making progress, she said.
“The system has to feel the pain of a community losing faith in it for change to take place. … Exposing negativity is not necessarily a bad thing, because that’s how you change something,” Muething said.
The wheels of change are already turning, and have been for a while, according to Carnoali from Pitkin County Public Health.
Pitkin County Public Health contracts with Mind Springs’ Aspen location for community and school-based behavioral health services. Mountain Family Health Centers in Basalt holds the subcontract for integrated care, which requires a medical office.
The integrated care contract with Mountain Family Health Centers provides funding for what Gary Schreiner, the director of behavioral health there, describes as a “biopsychosocial model of treatment.”
Patients coming in for medical appointments are assessed for mental health and vice versa, and behavioral health professionals are on hand to support patients who come in with physical ailments. (Someone who has anxiety about going to the dentist, for instance, might get a consult from someone who can help them get back on solid ground after a panic attack at an appointment.)
The center also works with other community partners, including mental health providers like Mind Springs and the Aspen Hope Center as well as resource hubs like Valley Settlement, a nonprofit that serves the area’s immigrant population, to meet the needs of the community.
“One of the goals of Mountain Family is to try to work with everybody,” Schreiner said.
County support also comes with additional accountability and oversight, according to Carnoali; benchmarks that would come with any contract also apply to Mind Springs.
The contract also isn’t one that lasts into perpetuity, and the process to apply for it in Pitkin County is due to open up in 2022 on the heels of when the county expects to complete a needs assessment and gap analysis of the community’s mental health resource system, Carnoali said. (That assessment process began this fall with a community survey and a provider-specific survey on mental health.)
Having that information will help equip county officials to evaluate what support could and should look like in the future, Carnoali said.
“We are making steps forward,” she said. “We will be proactive in trying to figure it out.”
Glenwood Springs Post Independent reporter Rich Allen contributed to this story.
A recent investment in technology by the airport serving Sun Valley could provide a blueprint for Aspen-Pitkin County to reduce airline flight delays and cancellations.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.