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Gov. Jared Polis addresses state’s behavioral health crisis

EDWARDS — Eagle County isn’t alone in its efforts to increase awareness, services and funding for behavioral health issues.

But it is taking a lead in getting to work on the problem.

Friday morning, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis traveled to Eagle County to speak with community leaders about how the county’s mental health concerns are part of a bigger statewide issue. During the morning session at Battle Mountain High School, the governor praised Vail Health’s $60 million commitment to behavioral health efforts and noted that local leaders are engaging in discussions that are needed throughout Colorado.

“In many ways, we have a suicide crisis in our state,” Polis said.

Earlier this month, Polis announced the formation of the Colorado Behavioral Health Task Force — a group tasked with evaluating Colorado’s existing systems and then setting a road map for the state’s behavioral health efforts. Polis told the local audience that Colorado spends more than $1 billion annually on behavioral health efforts, but the state needs to delve into the actual issues to ensure that those dollars are spent effectively. Polis noted that the state needs to define its behavioral health outcomes and then concentrate resources to meet them.

The concentration of resources is a familiar theme for Eagle County entities. Before Polis took the stage Friday, representatives from some of the 17 governmental, law enforcement, emergency services and health care organizations working on local behavioral health issues detailed the scope of the problem and their work to date in addressing it.

Battle Mountain High School student Saphira Klearman introduced the governor and made an emotional appeal, noting local young people struggle daily with behavioral health issues. She said the valley’s behavioral health system needs to change now.

“This initiative (Vail Health’s $60 million commitment) is incredible and I promise you it is going to make a change,” Klearman said.

An attempt every day

Eagle County Health and Human Services Director Chris Lindley shared a startling new statistic during Friday’s gathering — during 2018, there was nearly one suicide attempt every day in Eagle County.

“This is a small community, a small valley and when I heard that statistic from Chris Montera of Eagle County Paramedic Services, it blew my mind,” Lindley said.

Last year, local EMS workers responded to 324 suicide attempts. Seventeen Eagle County residents died by suicide in 2018.

Meanwhile, Vail Health’s emergency room recorded 290 visits for anxiety/depression last year, and both state and local officials know an emergency room isn’t the optimum environment for behavioral health treatment. Vail Health President and CEO Will Cook said that providing an alternative treatment center is one of the key features of the hospital’s $60 million behavioral health initiative.

Cook said that over the next 10 years, Vail Health’s $60 million pledge will be allocated to system priorities ($30 million); a crisis stabilization unit that will include 24/7 walk-in access and social detox ($12 million); in-kind support include administration, finance, IT, marking and philanthropy ($11 million); and staffing and operations ($7 million),

“This will start with the $60 million and we will go out and get more money raised,” Cook said.

Getting Help

The urgency of the state’ss behavioral health needs was a reoccurring topic at the Friday session. Current events underscored the state’s needs.

April 20 marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings and this week, a number of Denver metro area schools called off classes for a day when an 18-year-old Florida woman made credible threats to carry out another school shooting.

Acting as the moderator for Polis’s comments, Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney asked how behavioral health efforts can make Colorado safer. Polis noted that in the case of Sol Pais, who purchased three one-way tickets from Miami to Denver and who legally purchased a shotgun once she arrived in Colorado, mental health intervention didn’t happen. Instead, a massive manhunt that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars ensued and the teen died by suicide.

“Unfortunately, there was no interaction with any services that could have helped her,’ he said.

Polis noted the Pais case is an example of how the cost of reacting to mental health emergencies is much higher than providing preventative care. That’s the crux of the work ahead for the Colorado Behavioral Health Task Force as well as Eagle County’s behavioral health efforts.

“I really want to commend the steps that Vail Health as taken here,” said Polis. “It’s always good to be a leader, not a follower.”

Take it from a military veterinarian: Your dogs are good for you

Not all soldiers walk on two legs and carry a rifle. Many people do not know that there are veterinarians in the military.​

Dogs have been a part of the U.S. military in every conflict since the Revolutionary War. Chip, a canine sentry for the U.S. Army, was the most decorated dog in World War II. He served with the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy and France and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart.

As a U.S. Army veterinarian, I have the honor and privilege of caring for dogs like Chip. Each day I see evidence of the positive effects of human-animal bonds. These benefits are not limited only to the military, though. Recent research has shown very real physical and social-emotional benefits to owning a pet, and, in particular, a dog.

Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease

​Research is being conducted all around the world demonstrating the positive effects of canine companions on our physical health. A 2017 study in Sweden compared rates of cardiovascular disease in dog-owning families and non-dog-owning families. With over 3.4 million participants, the study showed a lower risk of cardiac-related deaths in families with dogs.

Reduced blood pressure

A U.S. study published last year in the American Heart Association’s journal, “Hypertension,” followed 48 people with high blood pressure who were given dogs. After just 6 months their blood pressure was significantly lower. Other studies show that dog owners have increased immune function and fewer health problems. In general, dogs keep us physically active, keep us busy, and give us companionship.

Among other duties, Capt. Edgerton is doing research about the human/animal bond.
Vail Mountain School

Psychological benefits

​In addition to the physical and social aspects of the human-animal bond, animals have an important psychological impact on their owners. Pets help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Recent studies at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine examined the effects of service dog partnership on the symptoms of combat trauma. The studies found that veterans with service dogs had significantly less depression, increased quality of life and higher social functioning.

The work of a program called the Warrior Canine Connection has shown similar benefits but uses a different approach. In this program, wounded warriors with post-traumatic stress train dogs to become service animals. Training dogs helps recovering veterans cope with post-deployment challenges, and in the process, the veterans heal themselves.

More than dogs are good for humans.
Vail Mountain School

Research by Canine Companions has shown that friendly interactions with dogs can release a powerful brain chemical that inspires a profound sense of attachment. This chemical reaction can also reduce fear and anxiety, and increase a sense of trust.

Pets help humans connect with others

​In addition to physical benefits, animals help create human-to-human friendships and lead to increased social support. A survey conducted by the University of Western Australia, Harvard, and WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition found that pet owners were 60% more likely than non-pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods. They also found that people who have solid social networks are 50% more likely to live longer than those with limited social networks.

In today’s society, especially with increased usage of social media, many people have trouble making connections. Pets provide an incentive for people to get out of their homes, and a means for them to connect with others over a mutual interest.

​Dogs have been part of our society for thousands of years. Having a pet can not only facilitate a healthy lifestyle, but can also provide numerous other psychological and social benefits.  While canine soldiers, like Chip, help keep the country safe, our personal pets help keep us active and bring us together as a community.

Cynthia Edgerton grew up in the Vail Valley and attended Vail Mountain School from kindergarten through 12th grade. After graduating from VMS in 2010, she completed her undergraduate degree in biology and military science at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont where she was also a part of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps. In 2014, the Army granted Cynthia an education delay to attend veterinary school at the University of Minnesota. She earned her doctorate of veterinary medicine in May of 2018 and entered the Army Veterinary Corps as a Captain.

She is currently stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs while she completes an internship program in animal medicine and public health. This summer the Army will move her to Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she will be the head veterinarian for the next 2-3 years. Following her military service, her goal is to return to her hometown in Vail, Colorado and establish a veterinary practice.

Vail One Mind program helps response to mental health cases

VAIL — Police are often the first to respond to people in crisis. Vail’s police department is working to make sure those first responders can provide as much help as possible.

The Vail Police Department is participating in the One Mind program, which was developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger has long been associated with that group.

According to the organization’s website, One Mind focuses on “uniting local communities, public safety organizations and mental health organizations so that the three become ‘of one mind.’”

Henninger said it has only been recently that there have been enough partners able to help with those goals. Vail police are working with the recently-created Eagle County Hope Center.

Henninger said longtime provider Mind Springs Health — which serves much of the Western Slope — simply hasn’t had the resources in Eagle County to provide the level of services needed for the One Mind program to be effective.

A growing need

The One Mind program works to build a model that involves police and medical first responders. And the need for services has been climbing, and climbing rapidly.

During a recent presentation to the Vail Town Council, Eagle County Human Services Department Director Chris Lindley laid out some of those numbers.

The county in just the past four years has seen a 360 percent increase in emergency room visits for anxiety or depression. There has been a similar increase in emergency room visits for alcohol or drug intoxication.

The number of suicides in the county has also roughly tripled, going from six in 2016 — a longtime county average — to 16 in 2017 and 17 in 2018.

Lindley said there has also been an increase since 2011 in the number of middle schoolers who have made suicide plans. That number was 15 percent in 2017, compared to 5 percent in 2011.

Vail Town Council member Jenn Bruno noted during the meeting that her two sons are both in middle school.

“I believe those numbers,” she said.

Lindley then ran through some of the efforts to improve mental health care in the county, starting with a sales tax on marijuana sales passed in 2017.

While that tax by itself won’t generate enough to cover all the county’s needs — Lindley’s estimates show more than $200 million in need over the next decade — Lindley said voter approval of the tax helped jump start the local effort.

Work is coming along to create facilities, including a 24-hour walk-in clinic.

But the needs are great. Lindley said Eagle County would need another 66 mental health professionals just to get the area to the state per-capita average.

One Mind, one community

Vail’s One Mind is another attempt to help as much as possible.

Henninger said One Mind is an effort to “have good policies in place.”

The program aims to train everyone working for Vail’s police department, from clerks to dispatchers to street officers.

The training is extensive — the 40-hour course includes both classroom work and role-playing exercises. The role-playing portion of the course includes actors trained to represent people in crisis.

Henninger said most of the department has taken the training. The entire staff may be trained by the end of this year, barring staff turnover.

The program is paid for with the department’s regular training funds.

Henninger said the One Mind training is useful for cases beyond those in a mental health crisis.

The “de-escalation” techniques can help with risk protection orders and other cases, he added.

Henninger said the reasons aren’t well known for the increases in mental health cases. But the need is there, for money and resources.

“Why don’t we have something similar to Pink Vail for mental health?” Lindley asked. “Wouldn’t it be nice to do that for mental health as well?”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

5 reasons why an LOL might help your health

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Sometimes, LAUGHTER Is the Best Medicine. You know that friend who is always good for a loud, hearty laugh? Turns out her sunny disposition is healthy — for relaxation, immune function, and even pain management. Kaiser Permanente behavioral medicine specialist Amanda Bye, PsyD, offers five reasons you should, well, LOL.

1 Laughter is a stress-buster. “It releases endorphins, which helps people feel good,” Dr. Bye says. “Endorphins also increase tolerance for both physical and emotional pain.”

2 Laughter boosts immunity. “It increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, which help to prevent or fight disease,” Dr. Bye explains.

3 Laughter relaxes the body. A good belly laugh may pack a one-two punch. “Chemicals are released that relax us, and laughter changes how we look at things, too,” Dr. Bye adds. “If we look at something as being funny, it’s not as stressful or painful.”

4 Laughter strengthens social networks. “It’s a way for humans to connect to each other. People who use humor are seen as more socially likable,” Dr. Bye says, noting that laughter helps improve teamwork, decrease conflict, and otherwise make human connections stronger.

5 Laughter is a little bit of exercise. Before you laugh this one off, consider this: According to the American Cancer Society, the effects of laughter include increased breathing, oxygen use, and heart rate — all similar to a quick burst of physical activity.

How to Laugh More

Now that you know laughter is good for your health, you want more of it, right? Amanda Bye, PsyD, explains how.

Be social. “People are 30 times more likely to laugh in a social setting than alone,” Dr. Bye says. Go to laughter yoga or game night.

Look for the humor in situations. Laugh at yourself.

Spend time with children and pets. “The average child laughs 400 times a day,” Dr. Bye says.

Watch something funny on TV. Buy your child a joke book. Go to a comedy club.

Smile at yourself in the mirror. “Fake it until you feel it,” Dr. Bye says, noting that this strategy moves you closer to laughing.

Erase anxiety with simple strategies

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Whether you have stage fright or a big work presentation, anxiety can invade at inopportune times. Evelyn Lifsey, Ph.D., Kaiser Permanente licensed clinical psychologist, outlines five steps to help you reduce anxiety.

Deep breaths. Breathe slowly and deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth. “Focus on how your body feels and the breath going in and out,” says Dr. Lifsey, noting that in addition to calming your mind, deep breathing oxygenates the blood and muscles, and thereby the brain.

Visualization. Recall the five senses of a relaxing place, such as the beach or mountains. “What does it look like? How does it feel on your skin? What does it sound like, taste like? How does it smell? Activate all your senses around that place. This will crowd out anxiety,” Dr. Lifsey says.

Distract yourself. Anxious thoughts elevate your heart rate. A racing heart then signals the brain that you should panic. “There absolutely is a mind-body connection,” Dr. Lifsey says. Do something physical to interrupt the cycle. Drop and do push-ups or a few yoga poses. Excuse yourself and take a quick walk if you can.

Pack a customized ‘fi rstaid’ kit. Write down positive statements on index cards. Download soothing music to your mobile phone or MP3 player. Pack an inspirational book. You know what calms you, so assemble an on-the-go survival kit.

Don’t worry about your worry. Some anxiety can actually help us perform better. “It’s a normal part of our makeup,” she says. “The right amount of anxiety—a little bit of stimulant— can help you concentrate on the thing you need to concentrate on most,” Dr. Lifsey says.

If you need more help it’s OK to seek help dealing with stress. In fact, meeting with a mental health professional can help you fine-tune deep breathing, visualization, or other strategies to reduce everyday anxiety. Licensed Clinical Psychologist Evelyn Lifsey, Ph.D., recommends meeting with a mental health professional if anxiety leads to:

  • Needless worry that you have difficulty controlling
  • Racing thoughts that interfere with concentration
  • Difficulty focusing at home, school or work
  • Panic or depression