Roaring Fork Valley nonprofits form mental health team to support residents’ wellness | PostIndependent.com
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Roaring Fork Valley nonprofits form mental health team to support residents’ wellness

Maddie Vincent
The Aspen Times
A woman runs across an empty street in downtown Aspen on Saturday, April 4, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

FINDING HELP

A look at the valley’s options to finding help during a mental health crisis:

Aspen Hope Center

Uses its specialty in crisis management.

Contact: 970-925-5858 and ourhopecenter.org

Mind Springs Health

Offers broad scope, more long term community mental health support

Contact: 970-201-4299 and mindspringshealth.org

Aspen Strong

Connecting all of the mental health resources together for providers and residents in one place.

Contact: aspenstrong.org

As Pitkin County health officials work to slowly unwind “stay at home” and social-distancing requirements based on a data-driven, “box-in” approach to COVID-19, the mental health coordination team also is collecting more data to help with its pandemic response.

Over the past six weeks since the county’s “stay at home” order was put in place, Aspen Strong, Mind Springs Health, the Aspen Hope Center and valley public health departments have joined forces to create one team aimed at helping residents cope with the increased stress, anxiety and depression they may be feeling due to the COVID-19 crisis.

From weekly virtual team meetings and coordinated messaging on mental wellness strategies locals can use to persevere through the crisis, to offering live video discussions, online support groups, stress and anxiety app suggestions, and free do-it-yourself activities to promote mental well-being, the team has worked to play on each member’s strengths and ensure every valley resident feels mentally and emotionally supported.

But in recent weeks, Aspen Strong founder Christina King said the team felt it needed to collect more data from mental health organizations and providers serving Aspen to Parachute to keep a better pulse on the mental well-being of locals during this crisis and to better understand how mental health resources are being utilized.

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“We’re just going to keep collecting this information so that we’re all on the same page here,” King said. “I think it’s important people know data is being collected and that we see you, we hear you, we want you to know and the best thing you guys can do to support our community is to reach out for help when you need it.”

So far, King said some of the data the team has reported include an increase in visits to the Aspen Strong website (which links to and includes messaging from Mind Springs Health and the Aspen Hope Center), a general decrease in crisis calls and calls for counseling/therapy in March, and an increased call load in April with a mix of old clients and people reaching out for help for the first time, King said.

“I think that’s a good sign, I don’t think that’s a sign that our community is in crisis,” King said of the team’s data. “I think it’s a sign that our community is reaching out. For some people it means their anxiety is high, but for other people it could mean they’re taking this time to address their mental hygiene.”

Jackie Skramstad, clinical operations manager with Mind Springs Health, feels it is a little too early in the COVID-19 crisis to identify any concrete mental health trends. However, she echoed King’s thoughts, saying that in March, calls for Mind Springs services really dropped off but bumped up back to normal in April with an increase in new clients reaching out.

“It’s hard to say that there’s been a real increase in trends. I think we’re just going to have to keep watching those numbers,” Skramstad said. “But this coronavirus situation has really turned everybody’s lives upside down and has challenged all of our coping strategies.”

Outside of new people reaching out and supporting existing clients whose mental health needs may be exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, Mind Springs Health is also hosting weekly Facebook Live videos that address COVID-19-related stressors and ways to cope during the pandemic.

Skramstad said this video series has had a good response and that Mind Springs has noticed an uptick in people accessing its website, COVID-19 toolkit and Facebook page.

“People have definitely been tuning in,” Skramstad said. “I think what we’ve posted has definitely been a real resource for people in the community who just know they need some extra help and support but don’t necessary need to talk with someone.”

Michelle Meuthing, executive director at the Aspen Hope Center, shared similar data over March and April for the Aspen Hope Center. Meuthing said March was “bizarrely quiet,” but that April pretty much went back to normal. The Hope Center received 47 crisis calls in April and typically averages about 60 calls a month, Meuthing said.

But while call numbers to the Aspen Hope Center and Mind Springs Health may not show a huge increase in need for professional mental health support during the pandemic, the Aspen Community Foundation says it has seen a great increase in requests for financial support from the Mental Health Fund over March and April.

According to Valerie Carlin, community investment director for ACF, the Mental Health Fund was created in 2011 by Joan and Lawrence Altman to address concerns about the safety and security of individuals and families living from Aspen to Parachute who find themselves in mental health or substance abuse crisis and cannot afford to pay for treatment.

Licensed mental health professionals can apply for Mental Health Fund support for their clients who are underinsured, uninsured or have serious financial challenges, Carlin said via email.

Last year, ACF distributed $30,000 from the Mental Health Fund. This year the nonprofit has already given out $23,000 from the fund and has seen a drastic increase in applications for support, though overall the number is still small.

ACF believes these increases are indicative of the trending upward need for mental health resources in the region, Carlin said, as the COVID-19 crisis has left many residents out of work and unable to pay for things such as therapy.

In a recent survey the county mental health coordination team put out to mental health providers from Aspen to Parachute, the majority of providers said they were aware of the Mental Health Fund as a resource for their clients, but are still concerned about how client sessions can be funded for those experiencing economic hardship.

Carlin said ACF will continue to facilitate funding for mental health through the 2020 Rescue Fund and the COVID-19 Regional Response Fund, connecting with mental health providers to monitor the financial need over the coming months.

Beyond funding concerns, the mental health coordination team’s survey also shows most participating providers have seen a decrease in referrals and new clients due to COVID-19, though a small number indicated seeing an increase or no change at all.

The survey is another way for the team to collect data, aiming to better understand how the pandemic is impacting mental health providers and their clients, and asks questions related to how providers feel their clients are doing during this time and what county resources are most helpful.

The mental health team plans to continue to survey providers every month through the summer, using the feedback to gauge where more mental health support and resources are needed.

King said the team does not know the exact number of providers the first survey was sent to, but said there were 44 responses.

The initial survey shows that while the majority of participating providers feel their clients are doing pretty well considering roughly 80% said their clients have experienced an increase in stress and anxiety due to COVID-19, and 50% said their clients have experienced increased depression, according to the survey data.

Some people may be alarmed by the percentages, but King emphasized that she feels these numbers are validating, signifying to locals that they are not alone in what they may be feeling and that these feelings are OK.

“People are feeling isolated, they are feeling depressed, they’re definitely feeling stressed and feeling anxiety but those are normal reactions,” King said. “Having these feelings isn’t a bad thing, it’s when we have them and don’t address them, that’s the bad thing, that can create something bad.”

When asked if the team feels the shared stress and anxiety experienced as a result of the COVID-19 crisis — along with the openness of leaders across the country to talk about these shared emotions — will encourage more people to reach out for mental health resources in the future, King, Skramstad and Meuthing said they hope it will.

The women said they can’t know for certain what the impacts of the ongoing pandemic will be, but generally feel that the more people talk about the importance of mental well-being, the more normalized it will be for people to seek out whatever activities and resources help them maintain it.

“I think what we have found is people who might not want to reach out have had an opportunity put in front of them where there has been less stigma around it because we’re hosting a support session and everybody is encouraged to attend,” Meuthing said, referring to the support groups that have started up for law enforcement, teachers and other sectors of the community during the pandemic.

“I also think people are finding out they might be more resilient than they think, navigating their way through something the world has never seen before.”

Meuthing said whether people are finding more strength within themselves or utilizing support groups and finding out they’re “not so bad,” she’s never seen the community rally together like it is right now.

Meuthing also feels that the pandemic has shined a light on the different strengths of the area mental health organizations and their ability to complement each other in supporting the community at large, with the Aspen Hope Center using its specialty in crisis management; Mind Springs Health offering its broad scope, more long term community mental health support; and Aspen Strong connecting all of the mental health resources together for providers and area residents to access in one place.

“I think right now we’re all playing the part of our strengths, which is what is making this work so well,” Meuthing said of the mental health coordination team’s response during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We have not changed who we are or what we are offering, we’re just putting it in people’s faces more. … I hope that people see what has been put out there and continue to take advantage of it no matter what the world is holding.”

For more information on mental health resources available to Roaring Fork residents during the COVID-19 crisis, visit aspenstrong.org/resources/covid-19.


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