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How a grieving wife started a suicide loss survivors group in Eagle County

After longtime local Kenny Dahlberg took his own life, his wife formed a support group for those who have lost loved ones to death by suicide.
Courtesy photo

As part of this year’s Longevity Project focusing on behavioral health issues in the High Country, the Vail Daily asked readers to share their personal stories. We’re sharing this submission with permission from Kris Miller, who hopes that her story can help others who are struggling with grief and loss. This article discusses death by suicide and suicidal ideation, and some people might find it triggering. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact your physician, go to your local emergency room, call Eagle Valley Behavioral Health’s 24/7 crisis line at (970) 306-4673 or Colorado Crisis Services at (844) 493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.

October 27 was a Friday, just like any other countless Fridays before.

My husband Kenny Dahlberg awoke long before the sun to arrive at his job at Home Depot on time.

Kenny was a beautiful soul with a bright heart. He was an athlete from the very beginning, playing peewee sports in his tiny hometown of Effie, Minnesota.

As Kenny grew, so did his natural athleticism. By the time Kenny was in high school, he was the quarterback for the varsity football team, the captain of the basketball team, and the captain of the baseball team as well as a mighty pitcher with wheels that could outrun most any ball. He ended up going to college on a baseball scholarship.

While Kenny loved being on all of his teams, one of the challenges he faced was, that while fast, Kenny had a small but mighty offense. Kenny took hit after hit as the quarterback. This was back in the day that sacking a quarterback was highly encouraged, and helmets were in their infancy. It retrospect, those hits may have taken a toll more than we will ever know.

After attending college, Kenny learned quickly that he was much better suited to be in the woods, hauling lumber for his dad and grandpa in the logging business, than sitting in a classroom. He soon found himself back in the North Woods hauling lumber to paper mills like the Potlach Corporation and into Winnipeg. Never missing an opportunity to push some boundaries, and never meeting a stranger, Kenny soon figured out how to bootleg “real Canadian Molson” in the jump seat of his 18-wheeler on return trips from Canada for he and his buddies to enjoy on the weekend.

I don’t know what it was about Molson from Canada versus Molson in the liquor store, but apparently the Canadian brew was so much better that it was worth the effort,

As the logging industry began to slow, and Kenny having an itch to do something new, he got a call from a friend and decided to head west, ultimately winding up in the Eagle River Valley.

Kenny, like so many, got a job doing maintenance and driving taxis. This left plenty of time for socializing, making new friends and enjoying the long ago, truly pleasurable nightlife in Vail — the olden days, I always say.

Kenny kept his athletic prowess tended to by playing softball (beer league), baseball (competitive league), pickup basketball at the school as well as coaching women’s softball and playing golf.

Never one to let the status quo warm under his feet, Kenny wanted something more. Wanted to create something of his own — a legacy of sorts here in the valley.

There was a tiny little hole in the wall dive bar (Kenny’s favorite kind) in Avon called the Penalty Box. Kenny became friendly with the owners, and ultimately bought the bar. He worked hard, taught himself the food and beverage industry, and created the greatest locals spot ever called The Brass Parrot.

Kenny Dahlberg serves a beer at The Brass Parrot, the locals bar he started in Avon.
Kristin Anderson/Vail Daily archive

People flocked from near (the apartments upstairs), and far (a list a celebrities that will go down in infamy), to the most comfortable, easygoing, inclusive restaurant (and still a bit of dive) bar in town.

As for myself, Kenny and my trajectory had continually crossed paths ever since his early days in town (I was fortunate enough to grow up here). Ultimately, due to powers left up to the imagination, the office I worked in was right across the hall from The Brass Parrot front door. Kenny and I became wonderful friends and confidants. We were so very fortunate to fall in love with our best friend — we were married up at Piney Lake back in the day when it was still cool and rugged, and not everyone knew about it.

The Brass Parrot continued to thrive and Kenny was incredibly proud of what he built. So many people met at the Parrot, began dating and ultimately started families of their own. I can’t begin to imagine how many people Kenny’s dream touched, and created new dreams for them and their families.

The Parrot had a good run — 21 years in this valley in food and beverage is a big deal. As with all things, times changed. The landlord wanted to sell the space for over a million dollars, which, was out of Kenny’s reach no matter how we looked at it. He made the impossible decision to sell the business, however, due to lease negotiation difficulties; he ultimately had to close the doors on his dream.

We spent some time post-Parrot goofing off. Lots of trips to Lake Powell with our beloved German shepherds, and a few trips back and forth to his family cabin on a lake in Northern Minnesota. Never one to sit idle, Kenny went to work — punching a time clock at Home Depot. He quickly grew through the ranks there due to his incredible work ethic, and his natural ability to run equipment. He became a trainer for trainers on all the equipment, and was a safety manager.

I wish I could pinpoint a day, or a moment in time when Kenny became cloudy, depressed or angry. I cannot. There were subtle changes. He quit walking as tall as he once did, he started talking about failures (closing his beloved business), he became more quiet, more inside of his own head, less social, less joyful.

These changes were subtle in nature. There’s nothing that glared out to us, the people that love him. All of these indicators are ideas I have rationalized in the endless days and nights since his death. I have spent so much time retracing every conversation, every nuance I can think of to make sense of what happened next. Did he sustain injuries playing football? I will never know. Did he battle a hidden depression for years? Was there one moment that caused Kenny to hurt, or was it a culmination of a life lived?

Oct. 27, the Friday like so many others, starting out without fanfare, just another workday. When Kenny arrived home after his shift, we sat down as we did every day at the end of work. Since it was a Friday, we talked about the weekend. Did we want to try to get together with some friends for brunch at the Turntable? Did we want to make some menus and cook the weekend away as we had done countless weekends before? I decided to run out to pick up some eggs. I was probable gone 20 minutes.

When I returned, Kenny had a noticeable and negative change in character and mood. He was angry and sullen. The rest of this story is too difficult to put in to print. Suffice it to say, one minute I was getting the dogs fresh water, the next, my husband was dead. A life ended too soon. A life full of hope and plans and love, all gone, in an instant.

The only part of this story that is mine is what has happened since Kenny died. There was a long period of time that my dogs and I simply hid from the world. We were alone in our grief, no matter how much friends and family and church members tried to help. Grief due to the loss of a loved one by suicide is like no other grief. It has a life of its own. A taste, and smell, and tangible weight that is unrelenting and ever present. It is a process of one hour at a time, then one day, and so one. There are days a person simply cannot do more than the basics of living — brushing your teeth becomes victorious as you have finally accomplished something towards the living side of life.

Because Kenny was such a light, and built such a legacy, I needed to do something.

It has become my passion to create the Suicide Loss Survivors Group. This group now has backing from Gracious Savior Church and SpeakUp ReachOut. It is in its sophomore iteration now.

I continue to receive training and guidance to become a valuable member of our grieving community, to help others that are helpless, during a time that is unfathomable to most. Grieving Kenny is never ending; my ability to help others is a way to honor the man who gave so much joy to everyone he met. This group is my love letter to him. This group will be part of his legacy.

Our next five-week group begins Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. It will run for five consecutive Mondays from 5-6:30 p.m. at Gracious Savior Church, and online. More information will be available as we approach the New Year.

Kevin Hines shares his unlikely story of survival with Vail area audience

Suicide survivor Kevin Hines stands on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. In the 21 years since his attempt, Hines has traveled across the country to speak about his experience with mental health.
Courtesy photo: Kevin Hines

Tales of amazing feats of survival are not uncommon in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, but few are as intense as the one shared with a local audience on Thursday via Zoom as part of the Vail Daily’s Longevity Project.

In a keynote address following a virtual panel discussion featuring local behavioral health experts, award-winning filmmaker and speaker Kevin Hines told an audience the story of how he “sprinted forward and catapulted” off the Golden Gate Bridge on Sept. 25, 2000.

The Longevity Project


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What happened next has been studied by doctors and physicists, but no examination has been as thorough Hines’ own, who said during the 220-foot fall he had sudden change of mind, which brought on a new will to live upon hitting the water. That will would become the determining factor in his survival in the minutes following his jump as he swam to stay alive. In addition to his will to live, luck, youth, strength, public services and a humorous fear — when told by Hines — of sharks played a role in keeping him alive.

“Thirty-five individuals in 85 years have survived that fall. Of those 39 individuals, 26 have come forward, just like me, to say they all had the same instant regret that I did,” he said. “Because they recognized in the moment that they thought was too late that their thoughts did not have to become their actions.”

Hines continues to struggle with bipolar disorder. He told the virtual audience on Thursday that in the years that have followed, he learned the importance of reaching out for help if a crisis comes up — even if it’s from random strangers.

His key message: “Suicide is not the answer to a problem; it is the problem.”

It was a takeaway that was examined earlier in the evening by a panel of Vail-area experts who looked at mental health and substance abuse from a local lens.

Asking the tough questions

Erin Ivie, the executive director of SpeakUp, ReachOut, the valley’s suicide prevention coalition, said depression can be identified through changes in behavior.

“If you see a big change in behavior from someone, that’s a big clue,” she said.

Financial distress, loss of a cherished relationship and loss of independence are often seen in cases of depression that lead to suicide, Ivie said. Loss of independence is usually associated with incarceration, but it can also come in the form of aging, she said, “if someone is no longer able to do the things they once did.”

Ivie said the two basics things that many warning signs have in common is the person is lonely or feels they are becoming a burden.

“These things don’t necessarily mean that somebody is thinking of suicide, but it’s absolutely worth having a conversation,” Ivie said. “’These are the things I’m seeing.’ ‘I care about you.’ ‘Tell me more.’ And then once you have them share with you what those things are and what their story is, you’ll have a better understanding of how you can support them.”

Hines said we shouldn’t fear asking the “blunt, honest and direct questions” as well.

“Three questions: ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’ ‘Have you made plans to take your life?’ ‘Or do you have the means,’” Hines said. “And following that up with, ‘I know this is an awkward conversation to have, and I know that it’s hard to answer this question honestly, but I’m asking you as your friend or loved one, to tell the truth in this situation, to help keep you safe, because I care about you and I love you and you’re not a burden, you are cared for, you are loved, you do matter, and these questions are important to me that you answer them honestly, so we can make sure you get to a safe place.’”

Some of the panel discussion was focused inward. Ivie told the audience that one of the panelists was at a higher risk of suicide simply as a function of that person’s line of work.

People involved in the criminal justice system are indeed at a higher risk for suicide, Avon Police Chief Greg Daly concurred, and in responding to grief-ridden situations, police must be guardians of their own mental health in addition to being guardians of the community, he said.

Daly said his officers now undergo mental health wellness checks, where, “even if they go in and talk about football for an hour,” the officers must talk to a mental health professional as a regular part of the job. Daly likened it to a mental health version of the obstacle course the officers must complete twice per year to verify they are in good physical health.

Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health and the executive director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, said everyone should check in with a mental health professional once per year along with a physical doctor.

“Exercise daily, seven days per week — whatever your movement is, do it, as long as you’re doing something it’s great,“ he said. ”See your primary care provider every year. See your behavioral health therapist every year. If you have issues on the physical health side or the behavioral health side, work with your providers to address those.”

Professionals and the person next to you

A recent increase in services in Eagle County now makes it easier to see a mental health professional. Behavioral health has been integrated across the primary care setting, with 19 new behavioral health providers added or coming to Colorado Mountain Medical’s primary care unit.

Many service upgrades have been made possible by a tax on marijuana passed in 2017 that contributes $500,000-$600,000 annually to mental health services in Eagle County. Local suicide prevention group SpeakUp, ReachOut was formed with zero full-time employees and now has four.

Eagle Valley Behavioral Health has distributed $7 million in community efforts this year, and Olivia’s Fund now allows community members to get up to six free sessions of behavioral health care.

The Vail Mind Center was formed less than three years ago and now has 17 therapists on staff to help children with early intervention services. The psychological assessments provided at Vail Mind Center’s Edwards facility save local families hours in driving and months on wait lists — which can be crucial for children, said Casey Wolfington with Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.

Vail Health has added three full-time psychiatrists to its staff, two of which are also board certified to handle adolescent clients. The hospital is currently seeking approvals to build “the first psychiatric hospital in almost 20 years in the state,” Lindley said. The psychiatric hospital aims to become a collaborative effort for “the first community mental health center designation in the state in 40 years,” that will bring more funding for suicide prevention and education to groups like SpeakUp, ReachOut.

But amid all this, an important service we must not overlook is each other, Hines said. In the years that followed his bridge jump, he created an emergency mental health plan for the times when he has suicidal ideation.

“Every time I’m suicidal, I turn to the closest person to me, whoever they are, and I say, ‘I need help now,’” Hines said. “I tell them exactly why I need help, what’s going on in my mind and how long I’ve been dealing with these things. And they’ve always got me the help I need.”

Hines shared a story of being in an airport and sharing his thoughts with airport security.

“They immediately did a threat assessment, and they were worried for the safety of the passengers, but they took me to a back room, they assessed that I was not a danger to anyone else — that I was only a danger to myself — and they got me the help I needed,” he said. “Because I asked for help.”

Creating safe spaces for youth in Eagle County

My Future Pathways is just one community organization that is working to build safe spaces for the county’s youth population.
My Future Pathways/Courtesy photo

Children and adolescents are currently facing a mental health crisis in Eagle County. For students struggling with anxiety, depression, isolation, stress, social pressures and more, the value of having a safe space to explore one’s identity and make connections can be life-changing.

“Our students — and I don’t think this is different than other places in our country — want to fit in. You don’t want to be different, and if you are different, that’s a really hard road to navigate,” Carol Johnson, director of programs and events at SpeakUp ReachOut. “It’s so vital for youth to have safe spaces to go to.”

While Johnson added that our community is lacking in some of these safe spaces, she said there are organizations that are taking steps in the right direction.

Identifying safe spaces

Bright Future Foundation is a local organization that was created to help break the generational cycle of violence and provide resources to families in need. The organization offers two youth-focused prevention programs in the community: Buddy Mentors, which offers one-on-one community mentoring between an adult volunteer and a local youth, and Hot Spot Mapping, a program that identifies safe spaces for students.

Rachel Halzel, the youth advocacy manager for Bright Future Foundation, said that this hot spot mapping program is done in schools with students. With it, students are asked to think about their day-to-day environment at school, how they interact with each other and identify areas where they feel unsafe.

“If a specific space or a particular group of students marks an area as unsafe, then the school community can intervene to make that space a more welcoming place for all,” Halzel said.

Last year, the organization conducted hot spot mapping with nearly 600 students, which will be presented to school district stakeholders later this year. And while in the past, this program has focused on school spaces, Halzel said that it will also be rolled out to the community at large this year.

LGBTQ Youth

Mountain Youth’s Valley Voice group represents at Eagle County Pride’s second annual Pride in the Park.
Mountain Youth/Courtesy Photo

Megan Vogt, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Megan Vogt Counseling in Eagle County, primarily she works with adolescents. And this year, she’s started working with more LGBTQ clients and parents.

“For the most part, the clients I see — specifically their parents — really want them to have a support system outside of them,” Vogt said. “Most of the parents are quite supportive and they just don’t necessarily have the language or the knowledge of exactly what is going on and how to support them. And so they just really want their kids to have a place to talk about identity.”

For the kids, Vogt said they’re “pretty comfortable” in terms of their identity and use the sessions in terms of exploration and allowing them “to talk about what they feel in a really non-judgmental space.”

Having non-judgmental and safe spaces is crucial for all students, and over the past few years, the county has started to build some critical infrastructure and supports for LGBTQ youth.

“It makes them feel so much less alone,” she said. “Just the knowledge that help is out there and these things are being talked about and all of that is just comforting for anybody to know, because I think that so much anxiety happens when you are struggling, but you don’t know where to go or if there’s anything available for you.”

Last year, a committee of community leaders formed Eagle County Pride to put on Eagle County’s first organized Pride event. Since then, the organization has hosted its second Pride in the Park at Nottingham Park in Avon and has started to increase its programming and community events, something that recently has grown to include youth-centric programming.

“This is an area of support our community is lacking in,” said Madison Partridge, a committee member of Eagle County Pride. “We want to fill this gap and be the resources our community needs. We want to do all that we can to improve the lived experience of LGBTQ+ individuals in our valley by providing inclusive programs and events, fostering relationships and educating the community on inclusivity and equity.”

So far, the organization has begun to facilitate two monthly peer support groups through the Vail Health and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health’s Mountain Strong Peer Support group. One is for parents and the other is a LGBTQ peer support group.

“These groups foster healthy friendships and connections that many may not have,” Partridge said. “Peer support groups strengthen community, self-worth and benefit mental health.”

Some schools have begun to introduce student gender and sexuality alliances that “help raise up LGBTQ+ voices,” Partridge said.

These groups help create safe and affirming environments in schools, environments which, she said “will be a key to improving outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth.”

Creating positive pathways

Students gather around at the first day of the My Future Pathways summer program.
My Future Pathways/courtesy Photo

Another organization working to build a safe space for students is My Future Pathways, which has campuses in Edwards and Gypsum.

The organization was formed in 2019 to help serve the social emotional needs of youth in Eagle County, primarily first-generation Latino youth.

“The value in this program is we provide opportunity for first generation youth in our community,” said Gerry Lopez, mentoring and project manager at My Future Pathways. “We then provide an environment that feels like family and nurtures trust amongst our youth.”

Bratzo Horruitiner, executive director of My Future Pathways, said the organization’s goals are to increase high school graduation, increase students’ employability and teach students to be leaders in the community.

“It’s a matter of instilling and reinforcing values, and trying to promote real communication, real relationships and positive pathways for the future,” Horruitiner said.

The organization does this in three major ways: through social-emotional support and gender-specific and age-appropriate peer mentoring, through academic tutoring, and through wellness activities including sports and experiential learning opportunities.

“We have two youth centers which provide a safe environment for the kids to hang out, always supervised. It’s an alcohol — and all other substance — free zone, plus they build a family there,” Horruitiner said. “Instead of going home to sometimes an empty house or not a safe environment, you can hang out here, learn, socialize, do homework.”

My Future Pathways staff and interns receive a suicide prevention training through Speak Up Reach Out.
My Future Pathways/Courtesy photo

For his students, Horruitiner said the value of having this safe environment is it increases participation and decreases isolation.

“We have a lot of suicides. We have a lot of depression. We have a lack of a sense of belonging,” he said. “A lot of our kids were not participating in anything and because they came here they learned something, they came to our mentoring — they were able to participate in other things and therefore, feel part of a community, feel integrated and get that sense of belonging.”

This, he said is the “magic of having a place where they can be kids and feel a part of something.”

Student voice, involvement

Mountain Youth students from the Valley Voice program show off their vision boards.
Mountain Youth/courtesy Photo

The community has come together in recent years to begin building more of these safe spaces to open up conversations around mental health and also to ensure students are receiving the help that they need. And for some organizations, this includes letting students take the lead.

Mountain Youth has always been engaged in including student voice in the conversation, said Michelle Stecher, executive director of Mountain Youth. And one way is through its Valley Voice program for middle and high school students. Valley Voice allows students to work together on solutions to problems their peers are facing.

“So a young person might see a need in the community or something their friend is struggling with and they propose a project around it to support their own peers and they propose it to a youth board of their peers,” she said. “If it gets approved, which I think 100% of them have, they are eligible for significant funding toward their project and they can have the backing of a full support team in pursuing their projects.”

In recent years, many students have proposed and developed projects that are mental health related, she said.

During the pandemic, students created Tu Gui, or Your Guide, which is designed as a tutoring and mentorship program.

A mentor and mentee from Valley Voice’s Tu Guia tutoring project pose for a photo.
Mountain Youth/courtesy Photo

“It started during the pandemic and kids were learning at home and families didn’t know how to best support their student’s learning, both academically and to support them with social, emotional learning,” Stecher said. The program matches students and families with a mentor, typically a high school or college student, to help the parents and students to build and learn skills — both academic and social-emotional — that support that student’s need.

“If we want to make a difference in this community for youth, then we need youth at the table helping to make those decisions and lead those efforts,” she said. “We are expanding that to try and engage younger youth, getting middle schoolers involved in running these projects and helping to see some peer support with some training so they can help be there for their friends that are having a tough day.”

Creating a culture of conversation around youth mental health

Parents and adults have been working toward creating a more open dialogue around youth mental health, which includes community events like the Eat Chat Parent series put on by Mountain Youth.
Mountain Youth/Courtesy photo

When Julie Ann’s daughter was 10, she stopped turning in her homework and started having anxiety, panic attacks. Ultimately, her daughter would be diagnosed with disruptive mood disorder, which is, Julie Ann said, juvenile onset of bipolar disorder. While her daughter was doing well in school and her achievement never fell below grade level, she was missing school and having a hard time making friends.

At the time, Julie Ann’s daughter was attending Vail Christian, but the family ultimately pulled her out to enroll in the public Eagle County school district.

When the family went to Eagle County Schools, Julie Ann asked the school for accommodations to ensure her daughter got the support she needed. However, she was met with resistance and ended up seeking an outside therapist as well as an educational consultant to get her daughter the support when needed at the school.

“The school system, unless they’re diagnosing or seeing [the behaviors], then they don’t take the outside parent request for evaluation or input very seriously,” she said. “That’s the hardest thing for parents in the schools, if they don’t think there’s a problem, but the parents do, it’s like you’re nobody.”

Her daughter did ultimately get an individualized education program at her school, but Julie Ann still felt like the family was doing the heavy lifting and her daughter still was not thriving.

“As parents, we were the constant case managers,” Julie Ann said. “It was always us reaching out, we rarely got reached out to from the school.”

During COVID-19, the family made the difficult decision to pull their daughter from Eagle County Schools and enroll her in a therapeutic boarding school in another state. At this school, she is getting the support she needs, is thriving and it made a huge difference for the entire family.

Overall, Julie Ann sees the changes being made and is happy for the addition of Hope Center clinicians in the school, however when it came to her daughter it was too little, too late.

“We felt very isolated in our in our journey and very shut out by the school system,” she said.

Throughout this process, Julie Ann was boosted up by her husband and her family, but going through it, she said she often felt completely isolated.

“You feel very isolated, you just learn to be by yourself and to try to navigate and then get told you’re a helicopter parent because you don’t get the feeling that people understand or are willing to understand,” Julie Ann said. “It was very, very hard.”

For Julie Ann, having more engagement from the school district and an explicit parent support group would’ve been awesome. At her daughter’s new school, they have an explicit group and she said its been “instrumental and it’s made huge differences in our ability to handle the ups and downs.”

The importance of family

When it comes to mental health, the family plays an important role in the student’s well-being. In some cases, stigmas get passed down through families, while in others, a culture of understanding and vulnerability can bring on new conversations and new levels of support.

“Youth watch the adults in this community, whether the adults realize it or not. The modeling of healthy behaviors, demonstrating stress management skills and authentically listening to our youth is critical for the community’s well-being,” said Candace Eves, prevention coordinator for Eagle County Schools. “How our students are doing is a reflection of how our community is doing holistically.”

Generationally, as well as culturally, there are still often discrepancies around mental health and they way that it is handled. However, parents and families play a vital role in a child’s well-being.

“Families can help provide healthy boundaries and expectations for foundational behaviors that support well-being,” said Dana Whelan, the district’s wellness coordinator.

For some families, identifying when to talk to children about mental health, or see when they’re struggling, can be difficult to navigate.

Often times, licensed professional counselor Megan Vogt said, “they don’t want to open up.” Vogt owns her own counseling practice in Eagle County where she works primarily with adolescents.

“There is a certain amount of distance and secrecy that happens at this age, which is completely normal,” she said. “But at the same time, they need to know that their parents are there and supportive and that they’re always a home base.”

And when it comes to listening to kids, Vogt stressed the importance of taking them seriously.

“Kids aren’t faking it,” she said. “It’s so much more helpful to believe your child and to get them help that they need than to think that they’re either faking it or needing attention because even if they are, the damage that could be done by ignoring them is just not worth it.”

Understanding warning signs

While warning signs vary for students, a good place to start is anything “that seems out of the ordinary,” said Hannah Ross, a school-based clinician and lead clinical supervisor for the Hope Center. She added that common warning signs can include students withdrawing from interests, students talking about suicide, self-harming behaviors, trouble sleeping, appetite disturbance or continual anger and irritability.

For Julie Ann, she noticed little things first with her daughter — absences, homework not being turned in, having difficulty making friends.

“When you look at it with a child with mental health, they are often socially delayed, the often organizationally delayed but they may not be academically delayed,” she said. “It’s the whole child.”

Casey Wolfington, a licensed psychologist and senior director of community behavioral health at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, would like to get to a point where parents treat kids’ mental health just like any other health concerns.

“Start talking about emotions and behaviors and feelings early and often, just like you do talking about physical concerns. We talk about bellyaches with kiddos all the time. So if we are talking about worry and sadness in similar ways, it makes it so it’s OK to talk about,” she said.

In order to normalize these conversations and help parents and families understand the value of these conversations and how to recognize mental health warning signs, many community organizations have begun to reach out to the whole family.

During COVID-19, Carrie Benway, the executive director of the Hope Center, noted that the Hope Center upped its case management services, helping parents and siblings connect with a variety of necessary services.

Dr. Teresa Haynes, clinical supervisor at the Hope Center, said that these even go beyond therapeutic resources and tap into additional areas of need, including resources for finances, food insecurity and housing. Areas that, she said, “you can’t separate out from mental health challenges.”

Families gather for a special edition Eat, Chat, Parent called Move, Chat Parent.
Mountain Youth/Courtesy photo

For many years, Mountain Youth has provided a program called Eat, Chat, Parent. These are free, bilingual family education programs that delve into topics that parents and youth in the community have prioritized. Some of the topics for Eat, Chat, Parent programs this fall and winter include vicarious trauma, inclusion, mental health and LGBTQ support, as well as cultures of dignity.

According to the organization’s Executive Director, Michelle Stecher, this allows families to experience the education together, sparking easier conversations and building skills and connections as a family. With this multi-generational approach, “we’ve seen the opportunity for the impact at home to skyrocket,” she said.

“To make a difference in the lives of our youth, it takes working with family members and care givers because, if a young person doesn’t feel safe and supported at home, that’s a huge risk, red flag,” Stecher said.

Cultural barriers

Bratzo Horruitiner, alongside My Future Pathways staff, leads a parent orientation at the Gypsum Rec Center.
My Future Pathways/Courtesy photo

Within the Hispanic community, there is still a stigma around talking about mental health.

“A lot of times, especially with the Latinos, our families don’t want to talk about it,” said Bratzo Horruitiner, executive director of My Future Pathways. “We are like a pressure cooker. So, we need to have those conversations, formalize and make these types of conversations more accessible.”

My Future Pathways, for its part, is getting creative about providing information about often stigmatized topics. One way is by giving information to parents that they can digest, research and try to understand at home, where there is less fear of judgment.

“I believe that if we stay ahead and stay creative and challenge the status quo, I think that’s one of the ways that we can become successful and support one family at a time,” Horruitiner said.

Gerry Lopez grew up in this macho environment, where mental health was a taboo topic. When he started struggling with feelings of depression and loneliness, he didn’t know what to do, because of his upbringing, he said. Now, he wishes more adults understood that “mental health doesn’t discriminate and that trauma is trauma.”

“I have talked with numerous youth that would rather come to someone like me that is closer to their age than an adult due to the fear of their trauma being belittled and not taken seriously,” Lopez said.

Now, Lopez works with My Future Pathways and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health to help build conversations around mental health for youth in the Latino community.

“Once I began therapy in high school I started to talk to my friends about it and a lot of them talked to me about how they would like to have the opportunity to do the same but they were scared of what their parents would say. Throughout high school I saw and talked to a lot of other Latino males about mental health and saw the need there,” Lopez said.

Ultimately, none of these problems will be solved in isolation, and talking about them is the best thing we can do.

“There’s significant value in just being heard and validated, for all of us, for any of us,” Haynes said. “As a bigger picture, it’s educating families, educating communities about ways and systems to decrease stress, was to maintain realistic expectations of yourself, of other people. I think sometimes about my five year old, how he’s so much more emotionally aware than I certainly was at his age. I think we are having that impact, it’s just not seen right away.”

State of emergency: How youth mental health became its own epidemic

Eighth graders Azul Villegas and Gisely Sanchez of the Gypsum Creek Middle School Hope Squad hand out stickers and inform their peers on the negative effects of bullying on National Suicide Prevention Day on Friday, Sept. 10.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Earlier this year, the Children’s Hospital of Colorado declared a state of emergency for youth mental health after reporting that doctors are seeing more children for mental health than they are for any type of physical trauma of illness.

This state of emergency “is something we’ve also experienced in Eagle County,” said Hannah Ross, a school-based clinician and lead clinical supervisor for the Hope Center. “We have worked with a number of students reporting suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, which was happening in years’ past, but has been occurring at high rates over the past year.”

During the 2020-2021 school year, Hope Center’s school-based clinicians supported 500 unique students through 8,775 interactions to prevent them from progressing into crisis, with 228 unique students participating in group sessions. Through these interactions, these school-based clinicians intervened with over 100 students experiencing active suicidal thoughts.

Carrie Benway, executive director of the Hope Center, said that going into this current academic year there’s an expectation that the numbers will only increase as students return to in-person learning five days a week.

Melisa Rewold-Thuon, assistant superintendent of support services for Eagle County Schools, said that last year, the district was concerned because suicide risk assessments decreased as did referrals to Health and Human Services and Child Protective Service.

“We think it’s because we didn’t have eyes on the kids,” she said. “Even within the first three weeks of school, it’s ramping back up pretty quickly with our students now that they’re back.”

Being an adolescent is hard and, in many ways, it always has been, even in the best of times.

“Now that we’re past our teens, it’s hard to remember how tumultuous of a time it is, how much is going on in their bodies and their brains in terms of development,” said Megan Vogt, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Megan Vogt Counseling in Eagle County.

During this tumultuous time, kids (especially teenagers) are grappling with questions of identity on top of dealing with social, academic and family pressures.

“They want to fit in. They want to figure out who they are and they want to be liked by their peers,” said Michelle Stetcher, the executive director of Mountain Youth.

Ross said that while it depends on the day and the student, the most common concerns she hears from students surround “their overall stress levels, anxieties, worries for friends, difficulties in communicating with important people in their lives (parents, friends, teachers), and frequently thoughts about suicide.”

And for students, the way these concerns manifest also varies.

“Some students internalize these difficulties, and you may not know by looking at them that they are having these struggles. These students may engage in self-harm, report intrusive thoughts about their difficulties, or a lot of negative self-talk,” Ross said. “Other students externalize their behaviors, and may present with behavioral challenges at the school or in the community (breaking rules), and are sometimes the students who are easier to tell that something is happening with.”

Candace Eves, a prevention coordinator with Eagle County Schools, said that according to the district’s prevention coordinator referral data, youth are facing “a plethora of behavioral health challenges.”

This includes anxiety, depression, impulsivity, being withdrawn, trauma, grief and loss, substance use and abuse, suicide ideation, conflict with peers and family members, abuse and neglect, underdeveloped social skills due to technology, and gender identity issues and a need for acceptance.

Pressures of a pandemic

Students from the Gypsum Creek Hope Squad pass out suicide prevention stickers as part of Suicide Prevention Day on Friday, Sept. 10.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

COVID was a pervasive part of all of our lives this past year, but for students, the pandemic heightened a number of existing problems.

Children are “not immune to the unrest of the entire world,” said Dr. Teresa Haynes, clinical supervisor at the Hope Center.

The pandemic increased isolation, forcing many to lose vital social interactions like sports, prom and graduation. It increased dependence on social media and virtual connection, and in some cases on substances. It intensified a lot of family problems. All of this was compounded with an uncertainty about how long the pandemic would last, what else would be taken from students and what it’s lasting impacts would be.

“Youth mental health has been increasing in intensity over the past year,” Ross said. “I think that a lot of these symptoms are similar to pre-pandemic, but I would also say that the pandemic stress has heightened a lot of these symptoms for our students.”

“The ambiguity brought on by this pandemic has created a layer of anxiety and confusion for many, including our students,” Eves said. “Childhood development is heavily influenced by social interactions, which have been vastly impacted due the pandemic and the consequences of not being able to gather.”

As the world shifted into a new virtual reality, “there were a lot less opportunities to have that real, genuine, human connection,” Stecher said. This isolation and lack of connection, she added, is a “big indicator to depression, which is then a big indicator for suicide ideation.”

The added pressures of social media — and this virtual communication — have concerned many mental health professionals far before the pandemic.

“Thinking back to a generation ago, students were able to disconnect from their peers when they got home from school or through the weekend. Now, their phones keep their peers in their pocket 24/7. That can be really hard for students, and parents,” Ross said. “I think the stay-at-home orders and school closures in 2020 enhanced the unhealthy relationship that a lot of our students experience with social media.”

The problem with social media, Ross said is that it’s difficult to remove it fully. Students do use it to connect with their friends and peers; however, social pressures often intensify on the platforms. “It can be a lot easier to say something cruel or unkind behind a phone or computer screen than in person,” she said.

The other problem, Eves said is that “social media leads with the idea of perfectionism and instant gratification, which impacts how youth see themselves and others around them, often painting a very unrealistic reality. This experience can perpetuate negative feelings and thoughts, oftentimes leading to further isolation and lack of meaningful connection to others.”

COVID-19 also added a layer of challenges for many students within their home lives. According to Eves, the last year brought an increase in crisis calls due to family distress in the challenges in the homes.

This included, “challenges with meeting basic needs for some families and students as seen by the increase in food security concerns, the housing crisis leaving many families feeling transient and living in hotels and motels until housing can be found,” she said.


These factors, especially in light of COVID-19, have created “a real level of family stress that trickles down to kids,” Haynes said.

Students often internalize their family’s concerns around employment, finances and home life, said Casey Wolfington, a licensed psychologist and the senior director of community behavioral health at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.

“I really feel like our youth have the same stress that their parents are experiencing, but they just also have the added stresses of everyday aspects of school,” Wolfington said.

If there is one bright spot, however, Wolfington says, it’s that, regardless of the crisis we find ourselves in, the pandemic has helped destigmatize behavioral health. The “shared trauma of COVID,” she said, while it has cause damage, it has also opened conversations and has “done a tremendous amount to normalize anxiety, depression and concerns.”

Getting to where we are today

Agnes Harakel speaks to the crowd before the Mental Health Awareness Month parade on Tuesday, May 25, 2021 in Eagle. The parade is a celebration of how Eagle County’s mental health landscape has changed over the last five years.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily File

16 years ago, when Agnes Harakal’s son John had his first psychotic break, he was 16. Since then, John has been diagnosed as bipolar. But at the time of his first episode, he needed in-patient services and he was taken to Grand Junction, in shackles in an ambulance, to get the help he need.

“It was heartbreaking,” Harakal said.

This wouldn’t be John’s, or the Harakal’s last trip to Grand Junction. While the family worked to find the right balance of treatment for John, they made this trek often (although Harakal drove her son after the first time). But the fourth trip, where Harakal sat with her son for 30 hours with a police officer, “was the thing that broke the camel’s, or mother’s back,” Harakal said.

At that time, Harakal set out to start a conversation and change the stigmas around mental health. The family’s work started with a parade in 2016 under the banner of “Changing Minds.” And since then, Harakal has worked tirelessly — alongside many other community organizations and in her role on the county’s mental health advisory committee — to change the conversations.

Overall, she thinks the community has done “a hell of a job,” with the big difference being “we’re talking about it as a community, and people care.”

“I think the change here has been amazing. I think the openness of our community to embrace people with mental health, whatever it may be, is amazing,” Harakal said.

This change has, over the years, made its way to the youth population in Eagle County through a variety of avenues, including community organizations, and within the school district.

A lot of the changes for the school district came around 2017 and 2018, Rewold-Thuon said. According to her, the district began to put more emphasis on resources and services in schools as it saw their student suicide risk assessment numbers increase, and with the tragic suicide of 13-year old Olivia Ortega in 2018. Ortega wasn’t a student with the district when it occurred, but had been a previous student.

“We didn’t seem to have adequate resources to help a student that is struggling,” Rewold-Thuon.

In fall of 2017, the district was awarded a school-based health professional grant from the Colorado Department of Education. This grant was awarded to increase its capacity around social and emotional learning; professional development opportunities for staff to learn about youth mental health, trauma, substance abuse and resiliency; increase the schools’ abilities to address and help navigate high need areas for students and families; and to create teams between middle schools and high schools to identify student behavioral health trends. As part of this, the district paid for the prevention specialists and the scope of their work

When the grant expired in 2020, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health extended the grant for a year and in 2021, this funding was extended by the Eagle County government through tobacco tax revenue. And, it updates the roles of the prevention specialists, adding more days and more organization of services.

Jay Pepitone is the Hope Center school-based therapist at Red Canyon High School. Pepitone is one of 13 clinicians that serve the Eagle County School District.
Berry Eckhaus Photography/Courtesy photo

Around this same time the initial grant was awarded, the district in collaboration with the county government put out a request for a proposal to bring dedicated clinicians to the schools. The result was that the Hope Center brought school-based programming to the Eagle River Valley in October 2018. Benway said this school-based program receives funds from the marijuana tax money, which was passed in 2018.

“In October of 2018, we had 24/7 crisis response and two Hope Center clinicians in two middle schools,” Benway said. “Three years later, in September 2021, we have 13 clinicians in 14 schools.” And it still offers 24/7 crisis support.

Ross was the first school-based clinician hired.

“We have been able to provide thousands of hours of needed behavioral health support to students in Eagle County,” Ross said. “We are right there at the school, so if a crisis arises, we can provide immediate support and connect with students that same day, instead of days or weeks later.”

The biggest benefit to having Hope Center Clinicians in the schools, Wolfington said, is that it removes so many barriers to access.

“When we think about rural health, often times we’re facing transportation barriers, financial barriers, the ability to balance competing needs,” Wolfington said. “And the Hope Center school-based clinicians erase all those barriers because they’re in school. A student can walk down the hall and access services that are completely free of charge.”

These school-based clinicians also work in conjunction with teachers and school counselors to provide a more comprehensive approach to student mental health.

And at many of the schools, depending on the need and the counselor’s capacity, counselors provide small group counseling services for a variety of students’ needs. This could include groups for students of divorce, students struggling with social interactions or grief and loss.

The success of these Hope Center clinicians was demonstrated immediately, Wolfington said.

“There were so many students that were in need of behavioral health support that those clinicians, their caseload filled almost instantaneously and it becomes this piece of how do we then add additional clinicians to support that need?” she said. “Our school-based programs demonstrated success so incredibly quickly.”

The school district didn’t stop there, however, and continued to partner with community agencies to fill the gaps needed to support students. According to Eves, this includes adding social and emotional learning to the curriculum as well as engaging in partnerships with the Behavioral Education coalition. This coalition includes Mountain Youth, Red Ribbon Project, SpeakUp ReachOut and Bright Future Foundation.

“We work with these other organizations to do some very targeted prevention work with students and then some intervention work,” Rewold-Thuon said.

Amy Lewis, currently the grant administrator for the Education Foundation of Eagle County, has been involved with this coalition since its second year and has helped secure sustainable funding for these organizations to increase their operational capacity within the public schools.

To date, Lewis said that EFEC has been able to raise $568,920 to facilitate programming that supports the schools counseling and social-emotional efforts. This funding has come from two consecutive grants from the Colorado Health Foundation, the second of which was awarded earlier this month.

“The Colorado Health Foundation, they have said over and over that we’re the only coalition throughout the state that’s doing something like this and that’s why they want to continue funding us,” she said. “They see this community coming together to support our youth and it fits all of their priorities.”

And for the public school district, the coalition compliments its work and bolsters itspriorities.

“The overall wellness of our students is our top priority and we want students and families to know that they can reach out to us at any time and we can help them connect with resources or provide resources,” Rewold-Thuon said. “And that this community is very, very rich in resources right now.”

The growth of these resources has had a big community impact.

Vogt’s first year in private practice — she had previously served as a school-based mental health clinician, working in local schools — was right after Ortega died by suicide.

“There was a lot of fear from parents, and a lot of angst within just the kiddos that I saw coming through my door,” Vogt said. “Since then it really has evolved. It’s been kind of a big three years in this town, with COVID and the schools shutting down and a lot more awareness about LGBTQ issues.”

With the introduction of more clinicians and counselors in the schools, more resources, including Olivia’s Fund, “it makes kids feel so much less alone,” she said.

“Just the knowledge that help is out there and these things are being talked about and all of that is just comforting for anybody to know, because I think that so much anxiety happens when you are struggling, but you don’t know where to go or if there’s anything available for you,” Vogt said.

“It’s a really small community and there’s been a lot of tragedy and a lot of hardship and I think that generally we really care about our kids and it’s pretty cool to see that,” Vogt said. “None of us can do this alone. So I’m just really grateful for the teachers and the counselors and the parents and everyone involved because it takes everybody.”

And this sense of community has only gotten stronger through the pandemic, Wolfington said.

“Every community organization has a stronger connection than we’ve ever had,” she said. “Going through a pandemic together, we were having some really big behavioral health conversations on an almost daily basis for the past two years. And so I think that we are probably closer aligned than we’ve ever been and really know the needs.”

A foundation of mental health education

As part of its robust programming, Mountain Youth conducts regular Positive Youth Development trainings, which enables youth-serving professionals to help young people reach their full potential.
Mountain Youth/Courtesy Photo

Through the implementation of these partnerships and the influx of resources, kids today are getting a much more robust education when it comes to mental health.

“Creating a solid foundation for mental health matters to our students and our community,” said Robin Roche, a licensed school counselor at Gypsum Creek Middle School. “This is my third year at Gypsum Creek and during this time, I believe that our social emotional learning team has integrated well-being and mental health into the forefront of so many of our conversations about students. These conversations ripple out and have a positive impact on our whole school community.”

Social-emotional learning has been a big push from the district in recent years. According to Rewold-Thuon, this helps get students ready for all the academic aspects of learning.

“If students aren’t in a place where they’re able to learn, it’s not going to help to give them more content and information,” she said. “The social-emotional aspect is how the student is dealing with themself, with others, their ability to handle stress, their ability to be resilient, their ability to get through their day and their relationships.”

Currently, the district is working with Eagle Valley Behavioral Health to bring in social-emotional curriculum into all schools and grade levels. Currently, the middle schools have a program that they are using and there are two elementary schools piloting a program for the elementary level.

A big part of adopting this mentality goes back to training staff as well.

“School staff have increasingly become advocates for reducing stigma with mental health, normalizing mental health as just as important as physical health and the link between academic success being dependent on wellness,” Eves said.

The district also relies on its community partners to fill in any gaps for students.

Seventh-grader Camilla Baldwin hands out stickers for the Hope Squad on Friday, Sept. 10, at Gypsum Creek Middle School in Gypsum.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

SpeakUp ReachOut provides signs of suicide education to students starting in fifth grade and going through 12th grade. Starting these conversations young and progressing the conversation, said Carol Johnson, director of programs and events with Speak Up Reach Out, not only breaks down stigmas, but can help prevent unwanted behaviors later on.

“The more we can talk about things, the more stigmas will break and the healthier we’ll be,” she said.

In fifth grade, the students receive two classes from SpeakUp ReachOut. The first of which delves into feelings and emotions and how to control and understand them. The second talks about mental illness, its prominence as well as forming definitions around anxiety and depression.

From there, each grade level progresses forward, getting more in depth each year. Discussions include the difference between sadness and depression, how to positively access social media, finding trusted adults as well as developing positive coping skills and avoiding negative ones. Students also learn ACT — acknowledge, care, tell — as a method for talking to friends about mental health and helping refer them to further help.

As a part of these sessions, students are able to request mental health support and also refer friends who may be struggling for support as well.

It is SpeakUp ReachOut’s goal to do these trainings in every Eagle County classroom. This year, it already has 95 classrooms on the schedule.

In collecting information about students’ mentalities and tracking behaviors like drinking, smoking, vaping, and exercise, it partners with Mountain Youth on the Healthy Kids Colorado survey. The organization also provides programming in the schools “focused at helping young people navigate adolescence better,” Stecher said. This includes topics like goal setting, communication, boundaries and resilience.

The district also relies on the Red Ribbon Project for sexual health and maturity education and on Bright Future Foundation for learning about health and abusive relationships.

Students are also educated on where they can go to get help. In addition to the Hope Center’s crisis line, students are told about the Colorado Crisis Center, Safe2Tell and how to find or access a therapist, if needed.

Many of these resources become vital out of school as well, particularly over weekends or during winter, summer or holiday breaks. Having these resources can provide students support when they don’t have access to in-school support.

“We have more resources to identify possible concerns and then provide supports for young people than we ever have, and a benefit of that is it normalizes help,” Stecher said. “I still think there are stigmas, especially with some sub-populations, but I think we’ve come a long way in helping to reduce those stigmas as a community.”

Existing barriers

Gerry Lopez was a junior in high school in 2016 when he began struggling with suicidal thoughts and loneliness. Ultimately, rather than end his life, he reached out for help.

“Through opening up and therapy, I’ve been able to become more open to behavioral health and less afraid to ask for help,” Lopez said.

In high school, therapy led Lopez to discover his strengths, starting with joining the cross-country and track team. And since graduating, he has dedicated himself to sharing his story, becoming involved with his community and helping others become more open about mental health.

Today, Lopez is the mentoring and project manager at My Future Pathways and acts as a liaison for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health and Latino youth efforts. He hopes to help students understand that they are not alone.

“A lot of kids suffer in silence and I wish that those kids knew that they are not alone and that help is available for them,” Lopez said.

Since graduation, Lopez does see that some strides have been made — having the Hope Center clinicians in schools and having more openness around the topic — but still feels that there is a lot more to accomplish.

For starters, there is a lack of Spanish-speaking and bilingual clinicians available. Vogt said this was one of the “biggest gaps” in local services right now.

Not only is there a lack of bilingual clinicians, but there is still a need for more clinicians and counselors with expertise in working with children. While the demand and need for pediatric psychiatric care has been established, the needed services aren’t always available.

“We recognize that there are certain situations where some students would benefit from outside of school therapy services,” Ross said. “Our community providers are being utilized to full capacity, which sometimes creates a barrier for accessing therapy services in the community.”

Wolfington said this is something Eagle Valley Behavioral Health is seeking to address through adding more pediatric providers and tiered levels of care.

“We don’t have enough services, we don’t have enough specialty providers, we don’t have enough tiered levels of care, which really means that if somebody needs to be seen more than once a week or more than every other week, there’s really not a lot of options here,” Wolfington said.

The labor shortage is exacerbating this challenge as well. Rewold-Thuon said that the district, through COVID-19 relief funds, now has the capacity to hire additional counselors and social workers at the high schools. However, officials haven’t been able to fill these vacancies. This includes two open counseling positions at the middle school and high school level. And for school psychologists, it has the capacity to have six, but only has three.

“We know that kids could use more counseling, working with school psychologists,” Rewold-Thuon. “Without the number we should have, it cuts in half the amount of services that we can provide.”

Ross said that the community pressures felt around housing and child care are felt by clinicians as well.

“It feels difficult to plant roots fully, which could wind up becoming a barrier to services for youth if we cannot retain these behavioral health professionals,” she said.

From the district’s perspective, while it has come a long way, there is still an immense need for “additional financial resources for mental health and substance abuse intervention and prevention,” Eves said.

On the financial side, the Education Foundation of Eagle County has been dedicated to finding sustainable and local funding around youth mental health since 2018, because the state doesn’t prioritize social-emotional learning like it does academic learning, according to Lewis.

“Unfortunately, in the state of Colorado, schools are not held accountable for social-emotional learning the way they are held accountable for academics,” Lewis said. “Academics will always take a seat in front of social-emotional learning.”

Even though, she said, they are inextricably linked.

“We’re fighting for social-emotional learning to be as important as academic learning and we’re fighting to keep those counselors in the schools, because we saw what happened when we got rid of them at this really crucial time in society,” Lewis said.

With substance abuse, Wolfington said that, similar to the county’s adult population, there is a “high number of youth that are turning to substances and substance use and abuse to manage their emotions.”

This community problem is one where services fail to meet the need for intervention and prevention around substance abuse.

“Living in a resort community, we still struggle with an environment where alcohol is everywhere,” Stecher said. For its part, Mountain Youth hosts many alcohol-free family events.

Hope ahead

The Homestake Peak Hope Squad pose for a photo on Friday, Sept. 10. This peer-elected group is just one way students are shifting the conversation around mental health.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

The benefit of much of this work is that kids are starting to have more open and honest conversation around emotions, feelings and mental health. This means that even with existing gaps in services and resources, the community is ready to fill those gaps.

For some schools, this includes bringing the kids themselves to the forefront of the conversation.

“I think if we want to make a difference in this community for youth, then we need youth at the table helping to make those decisions and lead those efforts,” Stecher said.

Last year, both Homestake Peak (now, for students grades four through eight) and Gypsum Creek Middle School welcomed a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program. Called Hope Squad, the program is part of a national organization and is designed to destigmatize mental health and suicide so students are encouraged to talk about their struggles and seek help.

Students nominate peers that they see as leaders, good listeners and trustworthy to the Hope Squad. The students then receive education around Question, Persuade, Refer — something SpeakUp ReachOut also teaches. This method is “designed to increase the chance of survival in the event of a crisis by providing a set of skills that may help prevent suicide,” said the Homestake Peak middle school counselors.

With QPR, the students are training to report concerns to a trusted adult or counselor which Homestake’s counselors called “monumental,” as students often reach out to peers.

“Hope Squad helps create visibility for mental health and well-being amongst the students. The student leaders have the opportunity to feel like they are the experts on their own lives and that they know how to help support their peers when they are going through challenging times,” Roche said. “Having a Hope Squad helps create a visual reminder for students that they can reach out to each other when they need help.”

This visual reminder is just one of many ways that the schools and other organizations are building hope for a brighter future for youth mental health.

For its part, the school district has plans to continue identifying students who need help through a universal social-emotional screening tool, as well as adding tiered-levels of support so all students receive the support that they need.

“I think that we do a better job of identifying the students that are not the outspoken students,” Rewold-Thuon said. “We hope that this social emotional screening will help us identify is the students that are hurting inside but may not be very vocal about it.”

Plus, Eves said that this program will ensure that the district is providing the correct resources to students as well as learn about the state of students’ wel-being.

As part of its collaborative approach to student well-being, the district also hopes to further train its staff on suicide assessment and “youth mental health first aid,” Rewold-Thuon said. “So helping get teachers the tools to recognize when students have trauma or when students are at risk in their classrooms and how to engage with the students in a way that is safe and helpful for the students.”

For a while now, the school district has been working on a wellness plan that encompasses all of these future goals around mental health, and then some.

“All of the district wellness team efforts, while some of the work not specific to mental well-being, funnels to support the whole child who has the knowledge, skills, ability and support to achieve their goals,” said Dana Whelan, the district’s wellness coordinator. “Primary support for mental well-being is learning self care and creating healthy habits for all students’ ability to have the best starting point to cope with the challenges of being a young person during a pandemic.”

While the community has come along way, the work is just getting started. There are still barriers, there are still challenges, but these organizations are just getting started.

“I do think that we have a lot of amazing providers in our community and they’re very busy. So it always feels like we could continue to use more,” Haynes said. “There’s always room for improvement and touching on those other things as well to increase and just support the mental health of students.”

Resources


Colorado Crisis Services

(844) 493-8255 free and confidential; or text TALK to 38255; ColoradoCrisisServices.org

Hope Center Crisis Line

Anyone in the community can access mental health support by calling the The Hope Center’s 24/7 crisis line: (970) 306-4673 (HOPE)

Safe 2 Tell Colorado

Call 877-542-7233 to report and help someone who is struggling or hurting or visit safe2tell.org to learn more

SpeakUp ReachOut

SpeakUpReachOut.org, or text the crisis text line. Text TALK to 741-741 for free, confidential support any time.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

(800) 273-TALK (8255) Free and confidential, (en espanol, 1-888-628-9454), SuicidePreventionLifeline.org

Eagle Valley Behaviorial Health

Find a therapist, support groups and more resources at eaglevalleybh.org. Plus, get information about financial assistance provided via Olivia’s Fund.

LGBTQ crisis support

The Trevor Project

TrevorLifeline, TrevorChat, and TrevorText at (866) 488-7386; Text TREVOR to (202) 304-1200; TheTrevorProject.org

Trans Lifeline

(877) 565-8860

Survivor calls suicide attempt ‘the greatest mistake of my life’

Suicide attempt survivor Kevin Hines stands on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In the 21 years since his attempt, Hines has traveled across the country to speak about his experience.
Kevin Hines/Courtesy photo

“I jumped.”

“It was the single worst action of my entire life,” Kevin Hines said. “The millisecond my hands left the rail, I had an instantaneous regret for my actions. It’s 100% recognition that I had just made the greatest mistake of my life, and it was too late.”

Hines is one of fewer than 40 people who have survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge and one of fewer than 10 who have regained full mobility. Since his suicide attempt in 2000, Hines has built a career on sharing his story in the hope that others struggling with mental health issues find solace in the fact that they aren’t alone and that help awaits them.

But it’s a lifetime of seeking help that has gotten Hines to where he is today.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Hines said his mental health issues stem from a traumatic infancy, in which he had a difficult home life and his brother died. Hines said he developed abandonment issues and a severe detachment disorder.

At 9 months old, he was fostered by the Hines family, which later adopted him when he was 4 years old. Hines credits them with saving his life.

“They gave me a future and stability and opportunity,” he said. “Growing up in the Hines household was a beautiful thing. We wanted nor needed for anything, all because of how hard (they) worked.”

In his new home, life was much more stable than with his birth parents, who he said sold drugs just to put a roof over their heads. But the lingering effects of his previous environment coupled with genetics continued to impact Hines as he grew up.

Throughout the years, Hines had ups and downs and said mental health issues were always present. At 17, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder — the same diagnosis he said his birth parents received — with psychotic features. Hines said he had manic highs and dark depressions, paranoid delusions, hallucinations and panic attacks.

Before his diagnosis, Hines called himself an eclectic teenager who had many interests. He was a skilled wrestler, played on the football team and participated in his school’s theater department.

“I really enjoyed life, and I was thoroughly excited for what was to come,” he said. “And then at 17 1/2, it all kind of came crashing down, and I developed a mental illness.”

Hines said his family started to pick up on signs that he might have a mental illness, but they didn’t know what to do about it.

“I was not telling anybody how severe my symptoms were, so I would see things and hear things that no one else could see or hear,” Hines said. “I kept it to myself. I would have paranoid delusions, and I wouldn’t tell anybody.”

Shortly after an outburst at school, Hines said his mother took him to see his first psychiatrist. Hines said the next two years were a “rocky road” as he tried to find medicine and a dosage that could help.

Leading up to the moment on the bridge, Hines said he felt self-loathing and heard voices telling him he had to die. On Sept. 25, 2000, at 19 years old, Hines jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.

After the U.S. Coast Guard pulled him from the water with a broken back and other serious injuries, Hines began a long, intensive road to recovery, both physically and mentally.

In the 21 years since his attempt, he has continued to seek out care with a new psychiatrist. He’s also been admitted into a psychiatric hospital nine times, with the latest stay in 2019.

Kevin Hines speaks at Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Since his suicide attempt in 2000, Hines has traveled the country to speak about his experience with mental health.
Kevin Hines/Courtesy photo

About six months after his attempt, Hines began publicly speaking to others about his experience. The first time was at his former school, where he spoke to more than 100 seventh and eighth grade kids.

“I still had my back brace and my cane,” Hines said about injuries he suffered in the fall. “I read a speech from the page, dropping page by page to the floor, crying and shaking the whole time. It was very raw.”

IF YOU GO …

What: The Longevity Project with speaker Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor and mental health advocate. This talk has been moved from an in-person event to a virtual Zoom event and will be preceded by a discussion about mental health with Avon Police Chief Greg Daly, SpeakUp ReachOut Executive Director Erin Ivie, Vail Valley Mind Center Founder Paul Graf, Vail Health Chief Population Health Officer Chris Lindley, and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health Community Behavioral Health Director Casey Wolfington.

When: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 23

Where: Virtual Zoom

To log on: VailDaily.com/longevity

When he was finished, the students asked him questions, and he felt like he made an impact. That impact was evident when he got a call shortly thereafter from the school asking him to visit again. Awaiting him were 120 letters from students thanking him for presenting. Some students even wrote that they were having thoughts of suicide, and those kids were screened and given the help they needed.

It is a moment that sticks with Hines years later.

“It feels amazing,” he said. “It was the first time I spoke, and it had that kind of an impact. My dad looked at me when he read the letters, and he said, ‘Kevin, we have to do this however, wherever possible.’ And we never stopped.”

By 2008, Hines turned his speaking engagements into a full-time job. He stays busy by traveling the country speaking about mental health and his personal experience. He continues to hear from audience members about how sharing his story has kept them from attempting suicide and encouraged them to seek help. By 2017, he was speaking more than 300 times per year.

In addition to coordinating speaking engagements, he has written a memoir titled “Cracked, Not Broken: Surviving and Thriving After a Suicide Attempt” and produced a documentary called “Suicide: The Ripple Effect.” He’s currently working on a new graphic novel called “Hope Dealers” as well as producing a docuseries called “The Journey.”

Hines is speaking at a virtual event capping The Longevity Project starting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 23. Tickets are free. For tickets and more information, visit VailDaily.com/longevity.

Latino advocates push for culturally competent mental health care

The MIRA Bus, a traveling RV that offers public health resources, provides COVID-19 vaccines outside of Homestake Peak School last month.
Kelli Duncan/Vail Daily

Eagle County law enforcement agencies’ response to mental health issues, as well as the broader community support structures they rely on, have struggled to meet the needs of the local Latino community.

Latinos and local immigrant populations are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured and less likely to be able to access “culturally competent” mental health care, said Alex Sánchez, executive director of local nonprofit Voces Unidas de las Montañas.

Eagle County has made impressive strides in addressing behavioral health challenges and providing law enforcement agencies with the support those agencies need to respond to underlying mental health needs appropriately. However, local Latinos have been largely left out of the conversation, Sánchez said.

The Longevity Project is a five-part series that will publish each week in the Vail Daily from Aug. 27 through Sept. 24. This year’s theme is how Colorado’s High Country is responding to increasing demand for behavioral health care. The series will also be bookended by a virtual screening of “Suicide: The Ripple Effect” and a live event featuring keynote speaker Kevin Hines and a local panel of behavioral health experts. Learn more at VailDaily.com/Longevity.

“It’s great that we have additional funding,” he said. “It’s great that we passed some initiatives, but at the end of day, the very people who need these services have not been at the table — are not making the choices and decisions as to how this money is being used, as to what programs and what services should be offered by whom and with what cultural competency.

“The data is there, we know who it’s working for because that’s what we capture,” Sánchez added. “Who is it not working for? That’s really the question.”

Sánchez also oversees the Voces Unidas Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. Both are based in Glenwood Springs and engage in advocacy work to “build community power” among historically disenfranchised Latino populations in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties, he said.

Nearly a third of Eagle County residents identify as Latino. Among school-aged children, that statistic is over 52%, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and a 2021 report from Eagle County School District. The district’s report states that around 32% of students are learning English as their second language, more than double the state average.

Yet, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health has just three bilingual behavioral health specialists working to serve local Spanish speakers among the 40 it has onboarded in the community.

Just over $250,000 of a special marijuana sales tax fund dedicated to mental health initiatives have been dedicated to Spanish-language programming in Eagle County.

These funds went to support staff for the MIRA Bus, a traveling RV that offers public health resources, as well as mental health first aid training for the local Latino community, according to data provided by Vail Health. The money also supported counseling services from La Cocina, a local nonprofit that seeks to improve access to “traditional and nontraditional forms of mental health and health equity support services.”

The leaders of local law enforcement agencies said they have hired more Latino and bilingual officers to better represent the population they serve. They have worked collaboratively with nonprofits and delivered resources for outreach in Spanish-speaking communities.

But Sánchez said it simply has not been enough to meet the need for culturally competent mental health support and heal the “generational trauma” that many Latinos and immigrant populations carry around with them each day, which can be triggered in interactions with law enforcement.

“Yet again, people of color are the ones who fall through the cracks because of good intentions, poor execution, inadequate impact,” he said. “If you fix it for the lowest denominator — those individuals who have the most needs — you’re going to fix it for everyone above them.”

It is incumbent on police officers to understand the kinds of trauma that are present within the communities they serve. Local immigrants, for example, are often exposed to three waves of trauma, Sánchez said.

“First one is in their home country. The second set of traumas is the journey. The third set of trauma is while you’re here,” he said. “Imagine being an undocumented parent having to kiss your children goodbye every single morning and not knowing if you’re going to be able to see them again. That’s real. That’s what trauma looks like and that’s the reality of humans in our community.”

Local law enforcement must send a strong message that they are here to serve and protect everyone regardless of documentation status and that they will not cooperate with federal agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sánchez said.

His own mother was deported from El Jebel when he was just 6, so he understands firsthand the work that must be done to heal the impact of historical collaboration between local and federal agencies.

“If we don’t feel safe, we’re not going to call 911 when someone is in danger,” he said. “We’re not going to call someone when someone needs true law enforcement. So that’s bad public safety practices.”

Alex Sánchez is the founder and executive director of Voces Unidas Action Fund, a Latino-led advocacy organization based in Glenwood Springs.

Eagle Police Chief Joey Staufer said local agencies understand the importance of sending this message and have taken steps to do so, specifically through the work of the county’s “law enforcement immigration alliance team.”

“We’ve explained how law enforcement works in our mountain communities, and we don’t care about the immigration status,” Staufer said. “But that still exists in minds of people and, unfortunately, some of these individuals have had very undesirable contact with law enforcement either in their former country or in another state, and the idea of law enforcement now resonates in that experience that they have had.”

“It is not a completely unwarranted fear just because of some of the history that we have endured,” he continued. “While many, many police organizations in our country are extremely professional, just like many of our Colorado police agencies, it just takes one or two incidents from an ill-trained department, or a department that hasn’t signed on to some of the professional variables that we adhere by on a daily basis, to tarnish that.”

Sánchez acknowledges progress in recent years. Voces Unidas supports the county’s co-response model, which dispatches mental health clinicians alongside first responders on mental health-related calls.

“Instead of being reactive and sending law enforcement to do what’s clearly a mental health issue, bring in professionals who know how to work with people who are going through a crisis and actually can respond to those needs,” he said.

However, models like these are “only as good as they are culturally competent and can meet the various needs of the very diverse constituencies that live in Eagle County,” Sánchez said.

The Hope Center hired four bilingual clinicians this summer: One was assigned to the crisis response team, and the other three are working in local schools, said Carrie Benway, the agency’s executive director, in an emailed statement.

This means that, out of the crisis response team’s eight clinicians, one clinician speaks Spanish and identifies as Latino, said Dr. Teresa Haynes, the Hope Center’s clinical director.

When the team’s bilingual staff member is not working, the crisis response team relies on an interpreter service called Interpreters Unlimited to deliver care across linguistic barriers, Haynes said. In other situations, they might rely on bilingual first responders to communicate.

Haynes acknowledged this method is “not ideal” and said that finding more bilingual staff tops the Hope Center’s priority list. The agency strives to offer trainings on diversity, inclusion and culturally competent care, she said.

“There’s a huge push in the field of psychology be like, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ We developed this treatment, but we just kind of did it and said, ‘OK, it’s great for everyone’ — but no, it’s actually not,” Haynes said.

“Western medicine historically is very standardized treatment across all cultures, which is not appropriate or effective,” she said.

It remains challenge as the valley faces a shortage of bilingual and bicultural mental health clinicians, but Haynes said they are always on the lookout.

“Ideally, we will continue to add bilingual clinicians to our team to best serve the community,” Benway said.

Collaboration between the Hope Center and law enforcement has brought improvements regarding mental health, Staufer said. Calls related to mental health crises have gone down, and the amount of people who are reaching out for preventative care has gone up, he said.

Still, this collaborative approach will not meet the needs of large swaths of the population if the right people don’t have a seat at the table, Sánchez said.

“We continue to call on all of those in the ecosystem, all of those entities where the power lies to make sure that they’re more equitable, to make sure that the leaders making those choices reflect the very population that they intend to serve,” Sánchez said. “Otherwise, it’s just going to continue to be a cycle where we’re going to miss the mark and I think that’s been the history of a lot of these counties and that’s been the history of our valley.”

This responsibility is not lost on local law enforcement officials.

“There are injustices throughout everything in society, but we’re kind of on the front lines of a lot of it, and we’re definitely being watched, as we should,” said Vail Police Commander Craig Bettis. “We’re going to continue to become better at what we do.”

Ideally, Eagle County should get to a point where police are gradually less involved in addressing mental health concerns in the community, Sánchez said.

“The big chunk of the mental health work that needs to happen is not going to happen in that setting,” he said. “The vast amount of mental health work really should be proactive, intentional and culturally competent.”

Relieving an overburdened system: Mental health and law enforcement in Eagle County

Licensed clinical social workers on the Hope Center’s crisis response team Jess Chezhia (left) and Vicky Bibler (back right) talk with Kevin Creek, community health specialist with Eagle County Paramedic Services, at the agencies’ shared campus in Eagle.
Kelli Duncan/Vail Daily

Eagle County law enforcement officials are often faced with responding to mental and behavioral health challenges as they interact with people on some of their worst days and in some of their lowest moments.

How those interactions play out at each step of someone’s journey within the criminal justice system depends on many factors — available resources, response models and diversion programs, but also a person’s race, socioeconomic status, and access to mental health care.

Eagle County voters overwhelmingly approved a 2017 ballot initiative dedicating funds generated by a 5% tax on recreational marijuana sales to address a local behavioral health crisis as high rates of suicide and insufficient resources collided.

The advisory committee that oversees the use of this fund allocated money to mental health support services for law enforcement agencies as a need for further reform was identified.

“If someone is not getting assistance … Guess what? It’s 911,” said Greg Daly, Avon’s chief of police and a member of the advisory committee. “When that person is having a crisis, they’re generally not calling a clinician, they’re not calling a hospital — they’re calling 911. And based on the emergency response system, we are the first on scene.”

Since the fund began doling out dollars in 2018, $300,000 was given to the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley for the creation of a “co-response crisis intervention team.” Another $427,349 was used for a contract with Mind Springs Health to provide clinical services and “intensive community-based transition services” to inmates in the Eagle County jail, according to data provided by Vail Health.

These figures are taken out of a total of more than $2.7 million in funds allocated to date. Vail Health also made a $60 million commitment to create Eagle Valley Behavioral Health and launch a new, collaborative approach to improving mental health in the valley.

Since this boom, the criminal justice system has implemented a co-response model for 911 calls, strengthened diversion programs in the courts, offered up new mental health services for Eagle County inmates and, overall, increased training and collaboration across agencies.

This provides police with more of the support structure they need to respond to underlying mental health issues appropriately and allows for more mental health advocacy as people move through the system.

In many ways, Eagle County is now ahead of the curve when compared to other parts of the country.

That being said, significant challenges remain and, as Daly said, “there’s always more we can do.”

Avon Police Chief Greg Daly represents local law enforcement on the Eagle County Mental Health Advisory Board, which oversees the disbursement of funds from a special tax on recreational marijuana sales.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Limitations on preventative mental health care has implications for law enforcement as people are more likely to experience mental health crises when preventative care is not accessible, affordable, and utilized, said Vail Police Commander Craig Bettis.

In Eagle County, these limitations can be seen quite starkly when it comes to the local Latino population, who are more likely to be un- or underinsured and less likely to be able to access “culturally competent” mental health care, said Alex Sánchez, the executive director of local nonprofit Voces Unidas de las Montañas.

This is a story about how local law enforcement agencies have been challenged with responding to mental health needs in our community, the strides they have made in recent years and what remains to be done.

The Longevity Project is a five-part series that will publish each week in the Vail Daily from Aug. 27 through Sept. 24. This year’s theme is how Colorado’s High Country is responding to increasing demand for behavioral health care. The series will also be bookended by a virtual screening of “Suicide: The Ripple Effect” and a live event featuring keynote speaker Kevin Hines and a local panel of behavioral health experts. Learn more at VailDaily.com/Longevity.

But that story is also about the broader community support structures that must be strengthened to lessen the load on law enforcement.

It is also a story about the passionate individuals within our criminal justice system — police, attorneys, judges, and crisis clinicians — who care deeply about helping their community heal and who often carry their own trauma from choosing to serve on the front lines of public safety.

The police

Nearly all of Eagle County’s law enforcement personnel live within the communities they serve and consider themselves to be “part of the fabric of the community,” Daly said.

When it comes to being attuned to the mental health needs of their community, though, police officers must first be aware of, and respond to, their own mental health needs, Daly said. This is something he has tried to model every day of his 25 years in local law enforcement.

“We deal with so many people in crisis out in the community that we are always dealing with so much trauma [and] that trauma seeps into our souls,” Daly said. “The traditional way of dealing with trauma has been to put on the macho sort of exterior, you know, joke about it, act like it doesn’t hurt me on the inside and go home and probably drink excessively.”

Law enforcement officials experience higher rates of poor mental health, substance abuse and suicide, national trends to which Eagle County is no exception.

The number of police officers nationwide who died by suicide was found to be more than triple that of officers fatally injured in the line of duty. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are five times higher among police than the rest of the population.

“A lot of that is down to us always trying to be the guardians of others and the last guardians of ourselves,” Daly said. However honorable this may seem; this approach ultimately ends up hurting officers as well as the communities they are sworn to protect.

“If they go up to the door and they have got all this stuff in their mind … how are they going to help other people? So, we have to provide an environment where they truly believe the people come first,” he said.

Daly led the charge in mandating annual, hour-long counseling sessions for all officers alongside their required annual physical exams. This policy has now been adopted by the Vail Police Department and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. Eagle Police Chief Joey Staufer said annual mental health checks are currently recommended for his officers, but he intends to begin mandating them as well.

Early intervention protocols used across Eagle County’s municipal police departments gather supervisors for regular meetings to identify officers that might be struggling, and every officer is trained to be vigilant to the needs of fellow officers, Daly said.

It is also incumbent on officers to understand the kinds of trauma that is present within the communities they serve. Local immigrants, for example, are often exposed to unique kinds of trauma, some of which can be triggered in interactions with law enforcement, Sánchez said.

Over 90% of the county’s police and sheriff’s deputies, including those working in the jail, have undergone crisis intervention training, Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said. The remaining percentage represents new hires that have not yet gotten the chance to take the mandated course.

Still, the 40-hour training cannot and should not take the place of a master’s degree in social work, Commander Bettis said.

“We are public safety mechanics and when we don’t have the tools, or we don’t have the part, we try our best to rig something up, temporarily,” Staufer said. “And yet, there are always those times where things could be done more effectively with more resources, more tools. And I think that’s what provides for a lot of anxiety in law enforcement – when we don’t have the tools.”

A growing number of police departments across the country are shifting towards a collaborative response model for mental health crisis intervention.

In Eagle County, the adoption of this model came at the request of law enforcement leaders themselves but, in other parts of the country, this change came in response to increased social pressure brought by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There’s always a set of factors in play at that moment, mentally or outside influences, drugs, alcohol, all those things play a part,” Bettis said. “Not knowing when sometimes you were looking at something that was indicative of a mental health illness was challenging, no doubt about it.”

Under Eagle County’s co-response model, “crisis clinicians” from the Hope Center are dispatched with first responders on mental health-related calls, said Carrie Benway, the agency’s executive director.

Of course, one limitation to this model is that it is not always clear to 911 dispatchers when mental health support might be needed.

“Some of these calls do present as mental health calls, but much of the time our call is a disturbance or fight in progress or intoxicated party, not related to any mental health issue, but when the officers or medics get on scene they see a different picture,” Marc Wentworth, Director of the Vail Public Safety Communications Center, said in an emailed statement.

Calls that are obviously mental-health related are categorized as such and the co-response model is initiated. Between the summer of 2019 and the summer of 2020, there were 44 such calls, and the following year saw another 40, Wentworth said.

Most times, though, crisis clinicians are called on scene after first responders have done an initial assessment of the situation.

From left to right: Kevin Creek, community health specialist with Eagle County Paramedic Services, stands with Hope Center crisis clinicians Vicky Bibler and Jess Chezhia. The two agencies share a campus in Eagle and are the core of Eagle County’s co-response model.
Kelli Duncan/Vail Daily

The Hope Center’s crisis clinicians are based out of the Eagle County Paramedic Services building in Eagle and work 24-hour shifts like other first responders, said Jess Chezhia, a licensed clinical social worker on the crisis response team.

Paramedics address immediate medical needs and work with the Hope Center to develop a safety plan for future care, said Kevin Creek, a community health specialist with Eagle County Paramedic Services.

These safety plans are meant to stabilize individuals and connect them with other local service providers who can meet their mid- and long-term needs, the Hope Center’s Clinical Director, Dr. Teresa Haynes, said.

With a Hope Center crisis clinician on scene, people experiencing mental health crises were able to be stabilized and avoid hospitalization nine times out of 10, according to data from 2020. This represents a significant improvement and is supported by the Hope Center’s belief that people oftentimes have better outcomes when they are plugged into a strong support network but remain in their home environment.

An infographic with data provided by the Hope Center shows a large increase in the use of the agency’s services following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

Vail Police spearheaded an effort to create the county’s first “threat response team” last year, Bettis said. The team brings local law enforcement together with Eagle County School District, the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and mental health providers to focus on early intervention and preventative mental health care as a method of reducing violent criminal activity.

Individuals are referred to the threat response team by representatives of these agencies if they demonstrate “a pattern of escalation, a pattern of violence” towards other community members, often due to untreated mental or behavioral health issues, Bettis said. The idea is to intercept these individuals before crises or violence occurs to get them the resources they need.

This model is also used in Denver and across the nation. Sometimes referrals are made for people who have had frequent interactions with law enforcement or people who have displayed a pattern of violence on social media.

Since being formed in 2020, the team has identified and responded to the needs of three individuals in the community as of mid-August.

Most people who struggle with their mental health, however, do not pose a risk of violence. It is imperative that the humanity of people with more immediate mental health needs is respected and that they are seen as fellow community members, not just as potential threats, Bettis said.

In some cases, these response models help people experiencing mental health problems avoid further involvement in the criminal justice system. When legal means are necessary, the co-response team can advocate for a mental health evaluation to be done, which can then be submitted for consideration by the court.

The courts

Diversion programs and problem-solving courts can be used to further prevent those struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues from ending up in prison.

Eagle County is proud to offer two “problem-solving courts” – RISE (Recover Invest Succeed Excel) Court, which focuses on people with multiple charges for driving under the influence, and the Recovery Court for other drug- or alcohol-related offenses, said Lisa Morton, the county’s problem-solving court coordinator.

In Eagle County and across the country, these programs have proven to be effective in reducing the likelihood of relapse and criminal recidivism.

According to a 2020 report from the Eagle County Justice Center, 93.5% of participants in the Recovery Court achieved sobriety and 83% did not commit another crime in the first five years post-graduation. For the RISE Court, these statistics were reported at 94.3% and 85%, respectively.

However, enrollment in local alternative justice programs remains limited in the face of the thousands of cases that roll through the Eagle County Justice Center each year.

Together, the two courts have seen 178 participants and 110 graduates since they became separate programs back in 2013. As of Dec. 31, 2020, there were 11 people participating in RISE Court and five in the Recovery Court, according to the Eagle County Justice Center report.

The courts have never had to deny participants due to a lack of resources, said Judge Paul R. Dunkelman, who presides over Recovery Court. Rather, the programs are very intensive in a way that does not work for every offender and the small group environment is part of what makes the courts such an effective model, he said.

Keith Carrieri, a graduate of the Recovery Court, said his substance abuse was rooted deeply in struggles with his mental health, something he may never have come to terms with if he had not been pulled from the traditional court system.

“Luckily, I found the light somewhere in there to kind of wake me up and say this is not an option anymore, like you do have a problem,” Carrieri said. ”It’s wild how blind we can get when we’re going through these things.“

Eagle County Court Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez listens to an update from a participant in the RISE Court, which is designed to help offenders with multiple charges for driving under the influence.
Eagle County Justice Center/Courtesy photo

These limited programs are far from the only way that the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office strives to take mental health into account when assessing and prosecuting cases, District Attorney Heidi McCollum said.

Prosecutors with the DA’s office have the authority to decide whether or not they want to file formal charges in any case, McCollum said. The statute of limitations on prosecuting an offense often gives them plenty of time to take a more thoughtful approach, especially if there are no victims in the case.

“We can take a step back and not be in a huge rush to come to a judgment on what someone’s actions are maybe before we understand the background of some of those actions,” she said.

For example, someone struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder would be served best by prosecutors waiting for a mental health assessment before moving forward.

“Let’s help them through this and that way, maybe they won’t be saddled with a felony for the rest of their lives. People make mistakes and a single mistake should be given a chance for redemption whenever possible,” McCollum said. “Obviously there’s certain crimes that you don’t get that chance for, right, much more serious crimes where you’ve got very serious assaults or sex assaults or homicide.”

Depending on the nature of the case, a defendant might be better served through one of the court’s diversion programs or the prosecution might recommend mental health treatment in plea offers they negotiate with the defense, McCollum said.

“I think the most success that the criminal justice system is ever going to get in working with with individuals with mental health concerns is to address everyone individually and to not lump people together,” she said. “I think I would be foolish to say that everyone with mental health struggles has been treated appropriately in the criminal justice system. Of course, not everyone has, we know that that’s what we’re trying to address now.”

The DA’s Office must also be considerate of the mental health of victims navigating the court system, especially when they are tasked with testifying against a defendant who may have caused them great physical or mental trauma, McCollum said.

Victims are often quite nervous when asked to testify in a trial and, even before this step, the lengthy and confusing process of seeing a case through the court system can cause mental or emotional distress, she said.

“When someone testifies in court, they’re not getting to tell their story necessarily,” McCollum explained. “They can tell pieces of it, but the only thing they can do is answer the questions that they’re asked… The only time a victim gets to be heard with no constraints is at a sentencing hearing.”

The court relies on victim’s advocates to guide victims through the complex legal processes of speaking out against a defendant, explaining legal jargon and the reasons behind certain delays or procedures, McCollum said.

Victims often feel compelled to share intimate details of their trauma with prosecutors, but McCollum said they encourage victims to share only what is directly relevant to prosecuting a case. Prosecutors are legally required to hand any information shared with them over to the defense as this is considered evidence that could aid them in defending their client, she said.

When testifying, victims “are usually not only reliving the worst moment of their lives, but they are having to do it in a public forum and they are literally being judged on it,” she said. “Their credibility is in question from the jury and then they are subject to cross-examination from defense counsel, and it can be very traumatizing.”

The Eagle County jail

As people move through the court system and await release or transportation to the Colorado Department of Corrections, they spend anywhere from a few days to a few months in the Eagle County jail.

Jail Captain Greg Van Wyk said the average length of stay in the detention center is four to 10 days, but jail staff still take mental health support very seriously.

In the past, the detention center was relying entirely on behavioral health services it contracted through Mind Springs known as “jail-based behavioral health services” or JBBS, Van Wyk said.

Shortly after Van Wyk assumed his position in 2016, the jail was given $80,000 from the marijuana sales tax fund to expand this programming. The facility now offers its own behavioral health curriculum as well as case management support post-release, he said.

The Eagle County jail now offers its own behavioral health curriculum as well as case management support post-release.
Kelli Duncan/Vail Daily

Vicky Bibler, a crisis clinician with the Hope Center, has come on board as the jail’s mental health clinician and provides initial mental health assessments as well as individual counseling for inmates with identified chronic and acute mental health concerns.

These are inmates who require closer attention than JBBS is able to give or who may be disruptive to the group therapy sessions offered, Van Wyk explained.

Inmates in both jails and prisons are at a significantly heightened risk of suicide, especially those who are behind bars for the first time, Bibler said.

“It is very anxiety provoking and demoralizing and then there’s others who have been in other facilities and feel like ‘I’ve got it good here,’” Bibler said.

“If you have any type of anxiety issue, many [first-timers] would have a panic attack,” she said, adding that it is important to consider that many inmates in the jail are waiting for their case to be heard and have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Sheriff’s deputies working in the jail undergo suicide awareness training to look for warning signs in inmates as well as fellow deputies. All jail staff strive to be vigilant to the individual needs of inmates and can advocate on their behalf if they feel like they might need outside treatment, Van Wyk said.

The jail evaluates each new inmate within the first 24 hours of entering the facility. Inmates have access to psychiatric treatment, including medication, as needed, he said.

Beyond these services, the jail offers a variety of volunteer-led programs including yoga, faith ministries and the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program for both men and women, volunteer and programs coordinator Sarah Kennedy said.

The jail’s main challenge in continuing to expand mental health services is not having the physical space, specifically classrooms, to accommodate this full schedule, Van Wyk said. The jail is also currently struggling with a shortage of staff.

One example of this strain came recently, when the addition of yoga classes meant that inmates’ hour-long outside time was reduced from seven days a week to five, he said.

Bibler had concern about this change as she said getting outside provides an important opportunity to get active and breathe in some fresh air. She encourages her clients to engage in as much physical activity as possible, even if it is something as simple as doing a wall sit or push-ups in their cells.

“From a mental health perspective, we know how important it is to get daylight and to get your heart rate up to increase your natural endorphins,” Bibler said.

The jail reduced its staff by three employees last year when asked to look for ways to trim its budget to withstand COVID-19 financial constraints.

Van Wyk said he hopes to re-up his staff soon. Ideally, he would have a full-time deputy specifically assigned to securely transport and monitor inmates who utilize these programs and services.

It is difficult to know how much of an impact these services make given the short stay of most inmates, Van Wyk said. He and Bibler both used metaphors about planting seeds, hoping they grow, but being at peace with the knowledge that they may not be around to see the leaves unfurl and drop seeds of their own.

“There’s certainly a sense of hope as some of these folks may have never come to an understanding of why they are the way they are, why they think the way they think — a sense of hope that they don’t have to continue in some of those behaviors when they get out,” Van Wyk said.

“There’s no guarantees in what we do,” he continued. “We’re planting seeds and hopefully those seeds mature into something for the future.”

Eagle County’s criminal justice system has made significant strides in identifying and supporting the mental health of individuals.

“We’ve seen a significant reduction in crisis calls for service,” Staufer said. “The reason being is we now have more services and more providers, better education, enhanced outreach. People are more willing to reach out before a crisis exists and that was the piece of the puzzle that we were missing for so many years.”

There is still much work to be done, though, and it is important not to become complacent or disillusioned with the reality of mental health in our community, he said. The way the valley is marketed to outsiders often serves as a painful contrast to what lies behind the eyes of its residents.

“Everybody wants to come out here. It’s beautiful. And yet there’s a dynamic that was hidden for a long time, and it wasn’t advertised,” Staufer said. “People are suffering, and they continue to suffer. And now it’s at the forefront and our partners and law enforcement, we’re addressing it the best we can with the resources that we have, and we want to continue to ensure that we can reach all segments of our community.”

A silent crisis: A new era for treating substance abuse disorders in Eagle County

Eagle Valley Behavioral Health staff members are working to increase the number of behavioral health specialists and resources in Eagle County.
Vail Health/Courtesy photo

Substance abuse disorders are one of the most common health issues in the country and in Eagle County. In 2019, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 19.3 million people over the age of 18, a full 7.7% of the United States adult population, struggled with a substance abuse disorder. Here in Eagle County, substance misuse has been the cause of 117 hospitalizations and 27 fatalities in the last five years.

Though substance abuse is categorized as a chronic disease that shares similar attributes to type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that nearly 90% of those that meet the diagnosis never seek treatment. A combination of stigma, limited access to resources and lack of education has allowed this often treatable disease to fester, making it the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

In the five years between 2013 and 2017, Eagle County recorded a 330% increase in hospitalizations related to substance abuse, while recording a 465% increase in visits for anxiety and depression during the same time period. The numbers were jarring, and they woke up the community to the need for accessible and affordable behavioral health services in the valley.

Eagle County is now at the beginning of a new era for treating substance abuse disorders, and a flood of resources and information campaigns are making a path to recovery more accessible than ever before.


Waiting for rock bottom

Substance abuse treatment has never been a priority in the United States’ health care system. Private treatment facilities provide comprehensive programs to those who can afford it, but for people lacking the time or resources, the most common institutions for addressing substance abuse, historically, have been the emergency room or the county jail.

Dr. Casey Wolfington is a licensed psychiatrist who has been working in the field of behavioral health in Eagle County for 14 years.

“When we do not have the services to support behavioral health needs, especially substance use and abuse, usually what we’re dealing with is the crisis — that is, individuals who are directly involved with law enforcement or showing up at the emergency department needing pretty severe medical intervention,” Wolfington said. “The fact is that with any behavioral health concern, the emergency room or law enforcement isn’t the appropriate place to treat it. That is when people are the least motivated to engage in services, and they are not in a place to preventatively engage in their health.”

Like most rural communities, Eagle County has not had a robust system of behavioral health resources or specialists available in the valley.

“A decade ago, most people were struggling in silence,” Wolfington said. “Our primary care physicians and AA were basically managing all of the substance use concerns. Some people who had the flexibility to travel would go down to Grand Junction or Denver for more formalized treatment, but with the workforce challenges here, not a lot of people have that flexibility in their schedule.”

Even those who did seek some form of treatment often did not do so until their addiction had reached a level that was so severe that it could no longer be ignored.


Dr. Harlan Austin, currently a psychologist at Vail’s Howard Head Sports Medicine, is the former director of clinical operations at the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation in Aurora.

“People will put off lower levels of care because they can kind of manage, life is still going,” Austin said. “I would say 90% of the time it is an outside force, whether that be family, friends, work, or the law, that helps somebody get into treatment when it is already really bad. And it’s like any other diagnosis — the sicker you get, the bigger the problems are.”

The absence of affordable treatment facilities in rural communities is a huge barrier towards taking a proactive approach to substance abuse issues, but another major deterrent is the stigma associated with addiction.

“We have to work as behavioral health providers to overcome stigma to help people realize that it’s actually better to go in earlier, when you have a mild diagnosis rather than a severe diagnosis,” Austin said.

Austin noted that the stigma around addiction has become so pervasive that a reframing of how society thinks and talks about substance abuse disorders needs to take place not only in the social community, but in the medical community as well.

“When a diabetic goes to the emergency room, they don’t say they’ve got ‘dirty blood’ for sugar, they say their blood sugar levels are X, Y and Z,” Austin said. “But if you have someone who’s got a substance use issue and they go to the ER, they say they’ve got ‘dirty blood’ or ‘dirty urine.’ There is stigmatic language that’s attached to them, rather than, ‘the urine is positive for amphetamines.’ It’s talked about in a way that makes people not want to admit to it.”

Combine this stigma with a lack of accessibility to resources, and instead of reaching out for help, 90% of people struggling with addiction disorders turn inwards through silence, isolation and shame.

“Think about if 90% of people with a broken arm didn’t seek treatment? That would be alarming,” Austin said. “But there’s a lot of stigma attached to substance use disorder diagnosis, and so that stigma prevents people from seeking treatment. We need de-stigmatization campaigns to help people think about questions like, ‘What does your use look like? Can you change your relationship to your use?’ instead of ‘Don’t talk about it.’”

A new era for substance abuse treatment in Eagle County

After years of watching a steady rise in hospitalizations from behavioral health issues, the Eagle County commissioners decided it was time to take significant action.

In September of 2017, they called for a ballot issue asking voters to authorize a new sales tax on recreational marijuana for the purpose of funding mental health and substance abuse services in the community. The ballot issue passed with more than 73% of the vote.

The Longevity Project is a five-part series that will publish each week in the Vail Daily from Aug. 27 through Sept. 24. This year’s theme is how Colorado’s High Country is responding to increasing demand for behavioral health care. The series will also be bookended by a virtual screening of “Suicide: The Ripple Effect” and a live event featuring keynote speaker Kevin Hines and a local panel of behavioral health experts. Learn more at VailDaily.com/Longevity.

As part of its mental health funding, the county established a 10-member council that recommends where the money should go from the tax collections should go. The council includes representatives from various programs, entities and facilities engaged in services, promotion and education.

That momentum also led to Vail Health’s $60 million, 10-year commitment in 2019 to address the behaviorial health crisis in the valley through the organization it created — Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. Vail Health also began a separate $100 million fundraising effort in Dec. 2019 through its foundation. Eagle Valley Behavorial Health is designed to ensure access to behavioral health services for everyone in Eagle County.

In its first year of operation, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health distributed $3 million in funding to 30 organizations in the valley to support behavioral health programs, increased Telehealth options, launched a “Long Live” anti-stigma campaign and purchased land for the development of a new cross-functional behavioral facility in Edwards that will have 24/7 walk in availability for all community members.

This artist’s depiction shows a planned behavioral health facility proposed by Vail Health.
Vail Health/Courtesy photo

Alcoholics Anonymous has had a strong presence in the valley since the 90s, and a new community health portal from Eagle Valley Behavioral Health will make it easier than ever for people to connect with effective community support groups like AA.

One of the most significant initiatives that Eagle Valley Behavioral Health has undertaken is the hiring and recruitment of trained behavioral specialists to the valley. The organization has already brought 35 new specialists to the valley since 2019, and plans to bring in a total of 50 or more in the next few years.

‘A baptism by fire’

Joseph Drew is a new pain and substance specialist that was brought on this past March to work at Colorado Mountain Medical in Avon. After graduating as a nurse practitioner in 2017, Drew moved to Eagle County where he worked two jobs: one in orthopedic pain management at an orthopedic clinic, and another at the Eagle County jail.

“It was baptism by fire about the substance abuse problems that we have in this valley,” Drew said.

Drew saw firsthand how opioid use can begin in the hospital as a basic pain management mechanism, but left unchecked can lead to substance dependencies that become more and more difficult to break over time. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.

While overprescription of opioids is a nationwide crisis, Drew noted that there is an added layer of complexity when it comes to treating patients in a resort community like Vail.

“The thing about the resort community, and the problem with prescribing anything, but specifically benzos or narcotics, is that we live in a concierge-driven society,” Drew said. “Everything is about ‘How is your service?’ And that crosses into what we do up here with our tourism-based outpatient orthopedics. If the people who are coming up here for this procedure are viewed as customers, which they are, we want to give the customer what they want.”

Joseph Drew started working as the county’s first pain and substance specialist in March of this year. In the last six months, he has already helped plan and execute treatment plans for over 100 community members.
Vail Health/Courtesy photo

Usually when people are coming out of invasive surgical procedures, what they want is immediate relief, which is most easily delivered in the form of pain relievers like oxycodone.

“It’s really easy to just give it to them so that we get a good review and they have a positive experience, whereas it takes a lot more work, and the chances of having a negative review are higher, when you sit down and have a 30-minute conversation with the patient about pain management after the procedure, what your expectations are, and the fact that we aren’t going to give you a month’s worth of narcotics because we need to be doing other things besides just taking pills to manage your pain.”

In his new role as a pain and substance specialist, instead of writing automatic prescription refills for pain management, doctors can now send patients to Drew, who will make sure that they are being mindful about their use of pain medication to help curb the national epidemic of opioid addiction.

“I can make that person come in and see me every month to get their prescription so we can at least have a conversation,” Drew said. “If they have pain, why are they having pain? What else can you do, instead of just refilling, two months after surgery, another prescription for oxycodone?”

Drew also continues to work at the Eagle County jail. In the past, he saw that when people struggling with addiction ended up in jail, they would be treated for immediate health needs while incarcerated and then released without any long-term resources for managing their disorder. Now, Drew is the first point of referral when people are released from the hospital or jail, so that he can help them establish strategies for counseling, treatment and community support going forward.

“The community focus is what I’m really pumped about,” Drew said. “To come in and talk to a human who you will continue to see in a week, in a month, not somebody different, I think is really important for continuity in care.”

Drew is also available for direct appointments with anyone who is struggling with substance abuse, and for those worried about payment, he helps connect people with scholarships and other financing opportunities as well.

“In order to get to me, there is no barrier,” Drew said. “We take Medicaid, Medicare, all the insurances, and people can call and directly schedule with me, they don’t have to go through an emergency department or a primary care doctor. Part of the effectiveness of any program is making the barrier to entry as low as possible, and that’s what we’re trying to do, because the first step is getting them in the door.”

In the six months that Drew has been in his new role, he has already helped plan and execute treatment plans for over 100 community members.

“We have people that have been sober now for 60, 70, 80, 90 days,” Drew said. “People who were on the verge of losing their jobs and marriage are doing counseling, and doing very well. Those numbers may only be in the dozens, not in the hundreds or thousands, but that is still dozens of people that live in our community, that work in our restaurants and schools and hospitals that are doing really well because they have the support that was lacking for a long time.”

Rising to meet the challenges of our times

The number of behavioral health specialists and resources in Eagle County is going to continue to increase dramatically in the upcoming years, thanks to the money and resources that Vail Health has committed to Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. Eagle Valley Behavioral Health also just received a designation as a community mental health center from the federal government, which will guarantee additional annual funding for growing and strengthening behavioral health programs in the area.

Wolfington, for one, will help lead this next chapter of care for the valley as the community behavioral health director for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.

“We are one of the only rural communities that has this level of financial and personal resources dedicated to behavioral health, so we are going to be able to make a huge difference,” Wolfington said. “Our community has recognized that we’re not immune to behavioral health difficulties, especially substance use and abuse, and I am just so excited to build services that really equal what the community needs.”

 

As we emerge from a year of social isolation and lockdown, and enter yet another period of uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic, these new resources will be critical for helping our community address the long-term impacts of the pandemic on substance abuse disorders.

“It’s been really, really tough for those individuals that were struggling with things that we all struggled with before, but then got pushed over the edge by being socially isolated or loss of a job or whatever the case may be,” Drew said. “I have had a number of people who were sober for years or decades prior to COVID that flipped back into alcoholism. The damage to mental health from this disease … the true measure is not going to be known for a while, but it’s significant.”

Dr. Austin agrees that we are only at the very beginning of COVID-19’s impact, and that the full magnitude of the pandemic’s influence on behavioral health will likely take years to reveal itself.

“There are lots of people that started new behaviors that were abnormal for their history, and if we have 300 million people in our country and X number started new behaviors, 10 to 15% of them are going to ultimately develop a substance use disorder,” Austin said. “That’s what I think is going to be kind of the secondary pandemic that will happen. There are people who have started alcohol use disorders who are probably in the mild category right now, maybe moderate, but they’ll hold that for 10 years. It’s a slow grade, and then all of a sudden it’s severe, and now it’s been so many years that it’s really hard to change.”

The hope is that with greater ease of access to resources and a better understanding of the dynamics of substance use disorders, community members will be able to identify these behaviors earlier within themselves and their loved ones and immediately find the support they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Access to more diverse resources will also allow people to build support systems that work best for their personal journey, instead of a one-size-fits-all treatment regimen.

“I think it’s really important that people know there are multiple paths to recovery,” Austin said. “There are sometimes messages that there’s only one way you can do this, and the reality is for each individual you’ve got multiple options of what you can do to try to make yourself healthier. Any decision to make oneself healthier is a good decision, rather than not making a decision because you don’t like what you think is the only option. That’s a win — and then maybe you choose another healthy behavior and then we can get the ball rolling.”

The history of substance abuse in America has long been categorized by silence and crisis, but the future is promising a new story.

“I’ve thought it was critical for a long time, but now there is recognition among leadership, among the community, among people who have the resources to help lower those barriers to entry so that we can give the most good to people,” Drew said. “My passion is getting the best resources to these individuals so that they can be parents and students and employees, and people that enjoy and contribute to the communities in which they live.”

Resources

Eagle Valley Behaviorial Health

(970) 306-4673 for local 24/7 crisis response; EagleValleybh.org

Colorado Crisis Services

(844) 493-8255 free and confidential; or text TALK to 38255; ColoradoCrisisServices.org

SpeakUp ReachOut

SpeakUpReachOut.org, or text the crisis text line. Text TALK to 741-741 for free, confidential support any time.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

(800) 273-TALK (8255) Free and confidential, (en espanol, 1-888-628-9454), SuicidePreventionLifeline.org

Mind Springs Health

Local office: (970) 328-6969; MindSpringsHealth.org

LGBTQ crisis support

The Trevor Project

TrevorLifeline, TrevorChat, and TrevorText at (866) 488-7386; Text TREVOR to (202) 304-1200; TheTrevorProject.org

Trans Lifeline

(877) 565-8860

Eagle County problem-solving courts offer new hope to repeat offenders battling substance abuse

Eagle County Court Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez listens to an update from a participant in the RISE Court, which is designed to help offenders with multiple charges for driving under the influence.
Eagle County Justice Center/Courtesy photo

National research into the mental health implications of substance use disorder has caused many courthouses, including those in Eagle County, to think critically about how addiction might breed criminal activity that otherwise would not occur.

The war on drugs led by the United States government brought a backlog of drug offense cases in the 80s and 90s, prompting a search for other avenues to address these offenses as jail populations swelled in many parts of the country.

One model that has proven to be successful is that of “problem-solving courts” that focus on substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation as a method of reducing recidivism.

“Often times our justice system is not necessarily based on rehabilitation and programs like these are based definitely more on rehabilitation than punishment,” said Amy Padden, a deputy district attorney for the 5th Judicial District. “And I think that’s appropriate especially when we’re dealing with substance abuse problems or mental health problems. If we can address whatever is causing the criminal behavior, then we’re going to have much better long-term success with these individuals. They’re going to be far less likely to recidivate or turn back to their criminal ways.”

Eagle County offers two of these “problem-solving courts” – RISE (Recover Invest Succeed Excel) Court, which focuses on people with multiple charges for driving under the influence, and the Recovery Court for other drug- or alcohol-related offenses, said Lisa Morton, the county’s problem-solving court coordinator.

The Longevity Project is a five-part series that will publish each week in the Vail Daily from Aug. 27 through Sept. 24. This year’s theme is how Colorado’s High Country is responding to increasing demand for behavioral health care. The series will also be bookended by a virtual screening of “Suicide: The Ripple Effect” and a live event featuring keynote speaker Kevin Hines and a local panel of behavioral health experts. Learn more at VailDaily.com/Longevity.

The county’s state-accredited RISE Court and Recovery Court began in 2009 as one court under the leadership of Eagle County Court Judge Katharine Sullivan, Morton said. It wasn’t until 2013 that the two were split into the programs that exist today.

Now, Judge Paul R. Dunkelman oversees the Recovery Court, previously known as “drug court,” and Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez runs RISE, previously the DUI Court.

A system that cares

For Dunkelman, who has been a 5th Judicial District Court Judge for eight years, the recovery court is an avenue for bringing about “fundamental change in the criminal justice system,” he said.

“When it works, you have somebody who didn’t lose his home or her home, didn’t lose the family, didn’t lose all the support, wasn’t taken out of the community and sent to prison,” Dunkelman said. “Putting somebody in prison for having an addiction as opposed to treating the addiction is just a poor way to handle what is a common problem in the valley, and that’s drug and alcohol addiction. It’s unproductive and it’s not cost-efficient.”

Someone becomes a participant in one of the courts if they meet a specific, standardized set of eligibility criteria, Morton said. Once they are recommended for the alternate tract, a committee of representatives from all areas of the criminal justice system reviews their case more closely and votes to admit them, she said.

“We’re looking for high-risk, high-need individuals, meaning high risk to re-offend and then high treatment need,” Morton said.

The courts are designed for repeat offenders who are teetering on the edge of serious prison time, but who authorities feel might need something different to turn their lives around.

Keith Carrieri, who had his first encounter with drugs at 8 years old and was in and out of the criminal justice system from the age of 13, fit this description.

Carrieri said he never thought he had a drug problem until much later in life, after he had dabbled in most every illegal drug this small-town community had to offer him and racked up a slew of misdemeanor and felony charges.

He learned to navigate the court system from a young age, putting down whatever he was using for six or eight months as he fulfilled probation for various charges, showing up for appearances and drug tests, and then going right back to business as usual.

“Going to jail every month or every couple months wasn’t enough to wake me up … it was just like, alright, what do I have to do this time?,” Carrieri said. “I knew how to get around every little corner that I needed to and kind of sneak my way through, but I would never see, until I got smacked straight in the forehead, that I had a problem. I just saw that I had to jump through this hoop, I have to stop for a little bit and as soon as Aug. 1 or whatever hits, I’m going to be back on it.”

Carrieri was facing assault and felony menacing charges in the fall of 2016. He was in jail and on his way to an 18-month prison sentence when he was admitted into recovery court, then known as drug court.

While much of this time in his life is quite foggy, he remembers the date of that arrest, Nov. 20, 2016, as it marks the anniversary of when he got clean, Carrieri said. He began the recovery court process four months sober, after he left jail and spent a stint at a Florida drug rehabilitation facility.

He knew the recovery court program would be intense and time-consuming and had even debated taking “the easy way out” via incarceration, but the thought of an 18-month stay in the Colorado Department of Corrections was not a pleasant one, he said.

Carrieri soon realized that Judge Sullivan, who holds legendary status when it comes to the two local problem-solving courts, did not mess around. But surprisingly, that was perhaps the most motivating part of the program, he said.

Today, he is nearly five years sober, and he attributes much of that to the Recovery Court and to Sullivan.

“I don’t think it ever would have happened if I didn’t have someone to say, ‘this is laid out in front of you and we’re going to help you,’” he said. “Having somebody that I felt like they cared was really huge too. Judge Sullivan really cared about us, and you could tell that.”

Participants in Eagle County’s problem-solving courts complete a mandated “sober activity” in a local community garden.
Eagle County Justice Center/Courtesy photo

More carrots than sticks

The problem-solving courts are a lot of work, but they are also often the first time that offenders are able to have positive interactions with law enforcement, Dunkelman said.

“Early on in the program, it seems overwhelming and too much as they become stabilized and see that they can do this,” Dunkelman said. “The end of the program is usually a thank you to the team for having belief in them when everybody else had given up belief in them.”

The peer support participants get from going through the program alongside other local offenders working through similar struggles is crucial, said Daniel Steinhauser, the deputy district attorney assigned to the RISE Court.

Finding a community of support was life-changing for Carrieri, but he said he found this peer support more strongly within his Alcoholics Anonymous or AA group, the kind of 12-step program mandated by the RISE and Recovery Courts.

The courts are governed by this “multidisciplinary” committee and local treatment providers — Alpine Springs Counseling and Mind Springs Health.

Participants are kept on track using a litany of “sanctions” and “incentives,” fancy terms for carrots and sticks.

A sanction or punishment might be imposed if someone fails a drug test or misses a session, and can be scaled up from additional community service hours to a night in jail to being kicked out of the program entirely, which Steinhauser said rarely happens.

“Sometimes the judicial system in the core system can be pretty slow moving unfortunately, and so in this program, they’re there in front of the judge every couple weeks,” Morton said. “So, there’s this really swift response to behavior both negative and positive.”

The courts try to use more carrots than sticks, Steinhauser said. Rewards might include a reduction in community service hours or a chance to spin a wheel with prizes like gift baskets and Walmart or gas station gift cards.

“A sanction is to really show them that this needs to be a priority, and that this is important,” he said. “But you also have to understand that part of recovery, part of treatment, is there’s going to be slip-ups, there’s going to be relapses and you can’t address it with such a heavy hand.”

“They’re working on changes that sometimes they’ve been doing these negative things for a long time and sometimes since they were kids, sometimes it’s multi-generational,” Morton said. “This is substance use disorder, so it’s a very difficult disease that they’re dealing with.”

Eagle County Court Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez presides over a hearing of RISE Court on Wednesday, Sept. 8. Next to her stands the wheel that participants spin to win prizes during hearings when they report being on track with completing the program.
Eagle County Justice Center/courtesy Photo

We don’t often consider substance abuse to be a disease requiring patience and consistent treatment, but that kind of response has proven to be extremely effective, she said.

Beyond substance abuse treatment, participants are also screened and offered treatment for “any mental health concerns, trauma PTSD, traumatic brain injuries,” Morton said.

“I think a big part of people that are struggling with drugs and alcohol and mental health is they don’t know where to find help. They don’t know who to talk to,” Carrieri said. “It’s not a very healthy environment when you’re deep in addiction … you don’t necessarily think anything’s wrong.”

Success rates

These programs have become even more important as DUI charges are up 200% this year, which authorities believe to be at least partially attributed to the release from being “cooped up” last year in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, Steinhauser said. The pandemic also brought spikes in substance abuse across the county, state, and country.

According to 2020 statistics presented by the Eagle County Justice Center, 93.5% of participants in the Recovery Court achieved sobriety as did 94.3% of RISE Court participants.

Of RISE Court graduates, 85% did not commit another crime in the five years post-graduation. This stat was 83% for the Recovery Court.

“It’s actually been, to me, pretty inspirational because what the participants are doing is really hard,” Padden said.

Padden recalled the recent graduation of a young woman from the Eagle County Recovery Court, someone who she had gotten to know during her journey to sobriety. She recalled feeling immensely proud of what the woman had accomplished in completing the program, and the struggles she overcame along the way.

“I told her this then, I was like, ‘As a prosecutor, it’s easy for me to become jaded and be like, you know, well this person says they are going to change but is it really going to happen?’” Padden said. “And here is this young woman, she was probably in her early 20s, who has really overcome all these obstacles and beat a serious addiction and really turned her life around.”

In this way, problem-solving courts also have the potential, if executed correctly, to lessen the divide between law enforcement officials and those on the other side of the podium, allowing offenders to feel seen for who they truly are and who they might become.

“I feel like this program, these problem-solving courts, really get the opportunity to dig in and see the human side and build those connections which otherwise wouldn’t happen,” Steinhauser said.

“Allowing somebody that’s going through that to feel like they are included, and they are worthy, and they do have that sliver of hope,” Carrieri said. “They’re not destined to the court system; they’re not destined to their relationship or their job … there can be more.”