Changing Minds event nets $35,000 for mental health services effort | VailDaily.com

Changing Minds event nets $35,000 for mental health services effort

EAGLE — Billed as part party, part lecture, last week's Changing Minds event aimed to raise money to expand local mental health services while attempting to change people's minds about diseases that affect the brain.

The checks are still funneling in, but to date the tally from the event is nearing $36,000. Not bad for one night's effort.

According to Agnes Harakal, one of the organizers of Changing Minds and an advocate for increased local mental health services, Total Health Alliance will hold the cash in reserve as supporters continue their work. She said the funds from last weekend's event will serve as seed money toward a long-term goal — dedicated mental health beds at a nearby hospital.

"These are treatable diseases. You can treat depression. You can treat bipolar. But you have to have those services available," Harakal said.

Matching matters

Harakal noted that before the doors opened at the Jan. 14 Changing Minds event, two donors had made $5,000 contributions to the fundraiser. Then organizers approached a third donor, armed with recent Vail Daily stories about the mental health challenges in the Eagle Valley. That donor not only pledged $10,000 but also offered to match any money raised during the event up to the amount of $15,000.

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"We walked into the room knowing we had raised $20,000," said Harakal. "Right now we are at $35,030 and we know we are due another $400, and that will be $800 with the match."

Along with the fundraising success, Harakal said that the event affected some attendees in a very personal way. She spoke with one couple who had just moved to the area and learned a family member has been diagnosed as bipolar disorder. That couple has learned the closest available extended hospital stay services are in Denver — more than 100 miles away from the nearest family member.

That's exactly the kind of scenario local advocates hope to address.

"If you are in a depression and you feel that you are alone, that makes everything worse," said Harakal. "Distance makes everything so much harder and having the family connection is very important."

Sharing stories

A running theme for the Changing Minds effort is education.

"There are people out there who are afraid to talk about their depression. These people are our neighbors," said Harakal. "This is a disease and it's not the depressed person's fault that they are depressed."

Harakal said her initial Changing Minds effort was to tackle two central misconceptions. First, that mental illness is something other than a disease and second, that the people who suffer from the condition can some how choose to cure themselves.

To prove the first point, Harakal has a slew of brain scan images that detail the difference between "normal" brains and the brains of people who are diagnosed as bipolar or depressed. The images are striking.

But even when a patient has a disease diagnosis, local treatment services are sadly lacking and, as Harakal noted, people who suffer from mental illness can't be magically cured without medical treatment.

"With mental illness, there is a perception that is just something that the person needs to get taken care of. Can you imagine saying something like that to someone with cancer?" said Daric Harvey, a Vail Police Department commander who helped organize Changing Minds. "Imagine if you had diabetes and you didn't have any where to go to get treatment."

"Some people just don't realize what a big issue this is," Harvey continued. "There are a lot of good efforts going on around the valley, but we need an concerted effort to fill the gaps," he said.

The money from the fundraiser will hopefully help attract grant money to begin work toward that vision, Harvey said.

Harvey also stressed the need for a cross-jurisdictional response to the area's mental health needs. He noted the issue crosses boundaries and affects everyone from students in local schools to inmates at the local jail. To address the issue, the various entities involved all need to step up, he believes.

While Changing Minds raised a tidy sum, it also provided an important opportunity for outreach.

Harakal noted speakers during the event stressed a common challenge. "They said 'Don't leave here without sharing stories. That is why we are here tonight,'" she said. "We want to show people there is support here."