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.
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.”