Time to address behavioral health in Eagle County
This article was first printed in the Vail Daily on June 6, 2019.
Just short of a year into my position as director of public health and environment for Eagle County, our community recorded its 33rd suicide in less than a two-year span. I was both deeply saddened and furious. The behavioral health system was failing our community. It was shocking to realize that here — where the wealthiest people in the world come to play — our key mental health resources were more than two hours away.
I’m an epidemiologist, but you don’t need an “ologist” to demystify these statistics:
- Colorado ranks an abysmal 43rd, out of 50 states, for mental health treatment and access to services, according to a 2017 Mental Health America report.
- Eagle County has half as many behavioral health providers as the state average.
- Suicide is the leading cause of death for Coloradans aged 10 to 24.
- 157 of our local 7th and 8th graders made a suicide plan in 2017.
- In 2018, we saw an average of one suicide attempt per day in this community.
A light in the darkness
We are desperate for healing, but there is now much reason for hope.
As I got to work in my new public health role with the county, I heard that we hadn’t made any measurable progress on this issue in over a decade directly from people involved in the system. There are many reasons why: a lack of providers, a broken and fragmented state funding model and competing issues like transportation access and housing costs. Mental health is, all too often, a manifest of complex, deeply-rooted issues. What is missing is the resources to address the complexity of mental health concerns.
Behavioral health, as it is often referred to by the medical and public health community, is currently the most critical unaddressed health issue in our community. Unlike vaping, tobacco, obesity, it often lacks overtly observable characteristics.
We’ve all known people who are struggling or have struggled ourselves and the power of humans to shield themselves from others is, unfortunately, strong. The good news is that our community has come together to tackle the problem, and we are collectively working to make dramatic changes.
So much has already improved. On November 7, 2017, Eagle County voters spoke loudly by passing the 1A mental health marijuana tax by a record 73 percent approval. Today, we are looking at this public health crisis with new eyes, new partners and new energy.
We are approaching this epidemic with the tenacity that it has always deserved, as our collective and personal challenge. We set aside our titles, organizations and political turf battles. We are taking action, in addition to talking more candidly about what is really going on and what we need to do to change our course.
Most importantly, we are making potential energy kinetic.
Today, I can update that:
- We have a strong crisis response system in this valley, which has reduced ambulance transports to the emergency department by 78% since October.
- Leaders of Eagle County’s law enforcement agencies and Eagle County Paramedics were tireless in their efforts to find funding to bring the Hope Center to this valley. The Hope Center is a private nonprofit agency specializing in mental health crisis work, from prevention through education, outreach, and school-based programs, to on-scene response and intervention with EMS and law enforcement.
- We have six school-based mental health clinicians in our middle and high schools, and we are working to get one in every school in the district. One year ago, we had zero. This could not have been achieved without a significant commitment from the county and the school district.
- Our Hispanic and Latino communities are coming together around mental health first-aid training. New bridges are being built between locals and the administrations that serve their needs. We need to make sure the solutions we develop prioritize bilingual, culturally accessible care so that our Hispanic neighbors know their needs will be addressed with compassion and respect. This can only happen if everyone has equal access to and participation in solutions.
- Vail Health is not only at the table, but they have committed $60 million to lead the community effort and provide the infrastructure and support we need to be successful. That commitment includes a new nonprofit, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, and early plans for a cross-functional behavioral health facility with a crisis stabilization unit for overnight stays, social detox and a 24/7 walk-in clinic dedicated to behavioral health.
- Mind Springs has a full-time clinician in the jail and a case manager. This will assist with transitions from the jail back to the community.
A challenge to Eagle County
There is much more to celebrate, but I challenge us to be even bolder. Let’s not just lead the state, let’s aim to lead the country. There is not a community in America, big or small, looking to transform behavioral health at a comprehensive scale the way we are.
We are building a behavioral health community where:
- Passionate, committed people are working together to solve our behavioral health crisis.
- We don’t just ask how can we solve the problem in its current state, but how can we imagine the future as we want it to be.
- We all join together regularly and leverage our experience, resources, and expertise.
- Mental and behavioral health are discussed, shared and treated with the attention and respect they deserve and that we give to other illnesses.
If you want to participate, there are many ways to do so:
- Eagle County Behavioral Health on Facebook: We would love to hear your experience or if you prefer to do so anonymously, you can share your experience here.
- Eagle Valley Behavioral Health’s website: Where all projects, implementation status, and funding allocations will soon be posted, as well as, videos, past meeting minutes and upcoming projects/opportunities. You can check out the website here.
- Reach out to me directly, everyone is welcome as we move forward.
Key resources within the community can be found at:
- SpeakUp ReachOut: Upcoming training and crisis support resources are listed here.
- The Hope Center: Where you can learn more about what’s taking place within our schools as well as get connected with Tele-psych medicine. Find more info here.
- Mind Springs: Where you can connect to set up an appointment and find many resources and tools you can use privately at home. Find more info here.
This is going to take all of us, so buckle up. The time to act is now. We want you to be a part.
Chris Lindley is the director of public health and environment for Eagle County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
We are Eagle River Valley
This article was first published in the Vail Health Magazine 2020, written by David O. Williams.
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