Guest column: Mental illness is more common than you’d guess |

Guest column: Mental illness is more common than you’d guess

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest column
Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014
Steve Mundinger |

Sadly, we’re all too aware that Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Valley have high rates of suicide, mental-health problems and substance abuse. In fact, the Pitkin County Public Health Improvement Plan identified mental health and substance abuse as the most “severe burden” on overall community health.

Nationally, about 1 in 4 adults experiences a mental-health issue, and in Colorado, the number increases to about 1 in 3 people. Estimates for Pitkin County vary, but all agree that the county’s rate is significantly higher than our state’s average and the national average.

For a semi-rural area, we’re fortunate that there are mental-health services available locally, including Mind Springs Health (our community’s mental-health clinic), the Aspen Hope Center (which focuses on people in crisis) and the Aspen Strong Foundation (which refers people to a consortium of local mental-health providers), among others.

However, many people who might benefit from treatment simply aren’t getting it. Why? What are the barriers to accessing care?

As you’d imagine, there are many reasons, and we don’t fully understand all of them. For starters, though, there are language barriers in the Roaring Fork Valley, and there is also, unfortunately, a social stigma associated with mental-health treatment. Most potential patients feel extremely vulnerable, and even if they were to call a therapist, they wouldn’t know what to say.

“We have people who won’t come in our front door, or they will park the car down the street so as not to be seen near our building,” said Chriss Flynn of Mind Springs Health, which has clinics in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and 11 other Western Slope towns.

Mental illness has nothing to do with being lazy or weak. Many factors contribute to mental-health problems, from genetics, physical injuries and brain chemistry to life experiences, including abuse or traumatic grief and loss. Often, these patients just need some help to get better, whether it’s correcting a hormone imbalance or recovering from the loss of a spouse, child or job.

“For a lot of people, it’s an inability to articulate (the problem),” said Christina King, executive director of the Aspen Strong Foundation. “Am I depressed? What does depression feel like?” Both Mind Springs and Aspen Strong aim to help potential patients describe what they are feeling with the help of free screening tools on their websites.

Cost is perhaps the biggest barrier to treatment. There are dozens of private practitioners in the valley, but owing to a variety of things, including low reimbursement rates and mountains of paperwork, only a few accept Medicaid or major insurance plans.

Recognizing these barriers, philanthropists Joan and Lawrence Altman generously established the Mental Health Fund at the Aspen Community Foundation in 2011, which provides financial help to those who cannot afford treatment. Since its inception, the fund has assisted 420 patients in receiving care from licensed clinicians. Now other community members have joined the Altmans in contributing to this important fund.

It’s important to note that treatment really works. Eighty percent of Mind Springs Health clients show a reduction in symptom severity. And when a patient’s condition improves, the benefits accrue to their family and their employers.

The support of family members or friends can make all the difference in getting a troubled person to seek help. If you know someone who’s having problems, then treat them respectfully, and remind them they’re not alone.

A listing of available community resources can be found on Aspen Strong’s website at, including agencies, support groups and licensed providers by area of expertise and the insurance they accept.

With heightened awareness of mental health, we can erase the negative stigmas and help people in need.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.