Giving Thought: Fighting the fires of mental-health crisis
Crisis can strike anyone at almost any time. Police and firefighters are the first responders to most tangible crises, but the Aspen Hope Center is the go-to agency when the situation has a mental-health component.
Michelle Muething has a long history in clinical psychology and specializes in crisis situations. She’s been the executive director of the Hope Center for four years, but considers herself an “in-the-trenches” administrator who is equally adept at balancing a budget or responding to an emergency.
Aspen Community Foundation: What prompted the creation of Aspen Hope Center?
Michelle Muething: Colorado has been, for the last 30 years, in the top-10 states in the country for suicide rates. People always tend to say Pitkin County has the highest suicide rate, but that’s not true. The problem is we’re a small community, so suicides make the front page, whereas in Denver it makes one line in an obituary.
In any event, we were created out of a research-based needs assessment commissioned by the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation and completed in 2009. The Hope Center opened its doors in 2010, and the goal was to eliminate all barriers to accessing quality mental health care in a time of crisis. This meant filling a number of gaps. First, we needed a crisis hotline with a human being to answer the phone. Second, we prioritized mental health education for the layperson, because those people always know their friends and family members better than anyone else. Third, we were designed to be specialists — the front line for local individuals in crisis. We have never offered A to Z. Our specialty was crisis.
The biggest gap identified in the study was the lack of a continuum of care in the valley. It was either “I’m sorry life is so stressful, here’s a card and see this therapist next Friday,” or “I’m sorry life is so stressful, I’m putting you in the hospital.” To fill the void between, we created an individual intensive outpatient program, or IIOP, which basically means that, whatever your problem, we’re going to keep you right here and provide comprehensive, individualized, wrap-around services.
Imagine flying an airplane over a forest with trees on fire. We try to see everything in a person’s life but we focus on the burning trees. If we can put those fires out — maybe they’re financial stress, maybe they’re family stress, addiction or anxiety — then the person can begin working on everything else.
ACF: Has the mission changed over time?
MM: Since 2010 we have grown deeper and stronger in what we do, but we have not expanded our services. We have stationed crisis clinicians at Basalt and Roaring Fork high schools. They’re crisis positions, but they’re housed inside a school and focused mostly on crisis prevention instead of intervention. So that’s newish. It’s actually become one of our best-known and well-respected programs.
We have always served the Highway 82 corridor and we have always stopped our face-to-face services at Interstate 70. We do get calls from places like Parachute and Meeker, but we’ll either meet them in Glenwood or on the phone. There is no “Sorry, we can’t help you.”
ACF: Can you give examples of how you serve your customers?
MM: This is why I like to talk about us as first responders. No two crises are exactly the same, so we have to be flexible and meet people where they are at that moment. Our mascot is Gumby, because we have to be flexible. He’s there at the front desk.
Here’s one example: A person called us one morning around 2 and said, “I’ve got nothing left to live for.” The next morning he called at 7:30 and was soon speaking directly with a clinician. He met criteria for hospitalization, but he also had a will to live. He agreed to keep himself safe and work through a program. It’s a long story, but he’s doing great and now has a tattoo of our flame on his ankle. He reached out for help himself.
On the flip side, we often get calls from people who are concerned about someone else. When we get those calls, the caller immediately becomes our client. We walk them through what to say, what to do, in order to get that “someone else” in front of us — up to and including the moment when they say, “I’m here with so-and-so, and I’m going to give him the phone.” And then we’ll talk to them.
Those are two ways that people come through the door.
ACF: What’s next for Aspen Hope Center?
MM: More of the same. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I don’t really want to be bigger, I just want to do more of what we already do and let the community know what that is. We’ll continue to empower people to save lives.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.
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