Mental health concerns linger coming out of the pandemic; area agencies build coalition for prevention, treatment
Garfield County did not see the major uptick in suicides last year that mental health professionals were worried about due to the economic and personal stresses brought on by the pandemic.
In some ways, though, the rebound from the public health restrictions that were in place for most of last year and into the first part of 2021 — and a new kind of isolation that comes with that — might be harder.
“Where we thought we’d have an epidemic of suicides last year, we did not see that in Garfield County, or even in Colorado or nationally,” Mason Hohstadt, public health specialist with Garfield County Public Health, said during a recent “mental health debrief” before the county commissioners.
That’s not particularly surprising on the local front, since Garfield County saw a record number of suicides in 2019, when 24 people took their own lives, according to Garfield County Coroner records.
That number dropped to 14 last year — still a very concerning number and an unfortunate barometer on the overall state of peoples’ mental health, Hohstadt said.
Hohstadt said in a follow-up interview last week that the trend so far this year is alarming and all the more reason to step up suicide prevention and mental health and addiction intervention services.
Through the end of May, Garfield County had recorded eight suicide deaths.
“That’s not higher than at this time in 2019, but it is higher than this time last year,” Hohstadt said.
People are still struggling, he said. And what’s changed this year is that they may not have the same level of support that they did during the height of the pandemic.
Hohstadt chairs the Garfield County Suicide Prevention Coalition and is co-chair of the county’s Human Services Commission, in addition to his work with Public Health.
“We do worry that, as we do go back to normal, some of that connectedness we had in 2020, which was sort of forced, is going away,” he said. “People who are still struggling may not have the support and that safety net that they had last year.”
The May 17 debrief and panel discussion brought together mental health and substance abuse experts from Mind Springs Health, Mountain Family Health Centers, the Aspen Hope Center, Youth Zone and High Rockies Harm Reduction.
The primary impetus was to review statistics from the various organizations over the past year. Among them was a reported 800% increase in calls to crisis lines in the region.
There’s good and bad news in that statistic, Hohstadt said.
“It says to us that people are aware of their mental health and know that there is a resource available to them, and they used it when they felt like they needed it,” he said.
While suicide prevention and mental health crisis lines are critical in the most acute situations, Hohstadt said about 65% of people who call in “just want to talk,” perhaps preventing that crisis point.
Late last year, MindSprings Health increased its crisis response efforts with the launch of its Mobile Recovery Team.
The team of mental health care professionals, peer specialists and case managers responds on a referral basis to provide immediate assistance for people who are in crisis, whether it’s a mental health emergency or substance abuse — or, in many situations, both.
If needed, the team can connect people not only to treatment services but, if needed, housing, food and employment assistance, said Hans Lutgring, outpatient program director for Mind Springs in Glenwood Springs.
The Mobile Recovery Team operates under the umbrella of Mind Springs, but other organizations are involved, making it a true collaborative effort, he explained.
Peer support is often the critical first step, Lutgring said.
“Through that collaboration, we can create connection points for people and really touch on the power of the peer specialist,” he said. “These are the people with the lived experiences, who are ready to use those experiences as the best entryway for people who are struggling with substance abuse.”
Oftentimes, people in crisis aren’t quite ready to jump into a treatment program, Lutgring said.
“What the Mobile Recovery Team is best at is starting the conversation,” he said.
A major concern both during and coming out of the pandemic has been the state of mental health and addiction among youth.
YouthZone, which serves the area from Aspen to Parachute, reported a 6% increase for both high-risk and intermediate-risk intakes from March through December 2020, new Executive Director Jami Hayes said during the debrief discussion.
“We saw a significant spike in alcohol use among youth, specifically,” she said. “Our parents are screaming for support and help around this and other behavioral concerns, and we responded with free parent consultations during the pandemic.”
For its part around that concern, the Aspen Hope Center has expanded its school-based mental health centers in the region, said Sarah Fedishan, program director for the valleywide mental health support services organization.
And behavioral intervention services are being made available earlier and earlier in a child’s development, she said.
“We now have new contracts starting in the elementary schools … and are excited to have school-based clinicians at all three school levels providing referrals to Mind Springs or Mountain Family Health,” Fedishen said. “It’s about providing a continuum of care, and catching students who have behavioral issues as soon as we can.”
Hohstadt said he is encouraged by the collaborative efforts among the various organizations to provide prevention, intervention and treatment services in what’s historically been an underserved rural region when it comes to mental health and addiction services.
“I’m excited that these efforts work to meet people where they are, and help them help themselves,” he said.
“It allows for the fact that people aren’t always in a place to take on treatment just yet. We can tend to get kind of moral high-groundish in these conversations and say you have to do these things to get better. Sometimes, that can make things worse.”
That’s especially true with opioid addiction, said Maggie Seldeen of High Rockies Harm Reduction.
Her organization has been working to get Narcan into the hands of law enforcement and other emergency response personnel to deal with overdose situations.
While suicide numbers were down in Garfield County and statewide last year, overdose-related deaths were up slightly, from 10 in 2019 to 11 in 2020. In Colorado, that number increased from about 1,100 in 2019 to nearly 1,500 last year, Seldeen said.
“We would probably see a much greater increase if not for the collaborative relationships we have, including with law enforcement,” she said.
Seldeen has also been working on an effort to establish a syringe access program and recovery center in Carbondale to help people through opioid addiction.
One challenge to providing consistent professional treatment and counseling services in the region is a shortage of labor and the high cost of living, which can be an obstacle even for many professionals.
“Finding qualified, experienced mental health workers has been a challenge for us, and for every community mental health provider in the state,” Stephanie Keister, public information officer for Mind Springs, said in a follow-up interview. “That’s been going on for several years and isn’t something particularly new.”
Fortunately for Mind Springs, though, she said there hasn’t been a huge turnover in employees for the organization, which serves 10 Western Slope counties.
“And we haven’t really seen any significant delays in getting people into treatment,” Keister said.
Because of its size, she said Mind Springs has the benefit of being able to tap into resources and partnerships with other organizations across a much larger region.
IF YOU, OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW, NEEDS TO TALK ABOUT THEIR MENTAL HEALTH, REACH OUT TO ONE OF THESE ORGANIZATIONS:
Aspen Hope Center: 970-925-5858
Mind Springs Health Crisis Line: 888-207-4004
Aspen Strong: 970-925-5858
Colorado Crisis Services: 844-493-8255 (TALK), or text TALK to 38255
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Suicide Prevention Coalition of Garfield County
National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) Roaring Fork Valley: Helpline 800-950-6264, or text NAMI to 741741
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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