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A celebration of Changing Minds in Eagle County

Five years after initial push, local behavioral health services have have massively expanded

Agnes Harakal speaks to the crowd before the Mental Health Awareness Month parade Tuesday in Eagle.
Christopher Dillmann/cdillman@vaildaily.com

It all began with an Eagle mom.

Back in 2016, Agnes Harakal knew mental health services in Eagle County needed to change. Actually, it was more than that.

In many respects, mental health services in Eagle County needed to exist. For Harakal, it was a personal battle. Her son John — who is diagnosed as bipolar — needed in-patient services that spring and the family struggled to find him a place. They also struggled to find local acceptance for the illness John battled. The Harakals set out to change minds and change the conversation about mental health in Eagle County.



So, they organized a parade.

Five years ago, a small group of supporters donned freshly printed vivid green T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Changing Minds” and marched down Broadway to plead with the Eagle County commissioners for increased local mental health services.



Agnes and Glen Harakal pulled out those shirts Tuesday — now faded but still bright — to make that same march. That’s the smallest example of the changes that have occurred in Eagle County’s mental health landscape over the last five years.

“In 2016, we came here to the county to say we needed your help,” Agnes Harakal told the Eagle County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. “Today we are here to say thank you.”

Participants march down Broadway in a parade for Mental Health Awareness Month Tuesday in Eagle.
Christopher Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

During the past five years, behavioral health services in Eagle County have undergone an overhaul. It began when the county voters approved a tax on marijuana product sales, which provided a funding source for programs. Subsequently, the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley was created to provide on-site, crisis services. Ultimately, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health was launched and Vail Health made a $60 million commitment to improve services in the valley. Today, all county residents can receive behavioral health counseling services, free of charge, through Olivia’s Fund.

“When I met Agnes in 2018 we were just starting our work,” Eagle Valley Behavioral Health Operations Manager Dana Erpelding said. She then listed off several community organizations including SpeakUp ReachOut suicide prevention, local law enforcement and the Hope Center that have all benefited from increased funding through Vail Health.

“We know we still have a long ways to go in addressing the epidemic our community,” Erpelding added, noting the next big step is the proposed Northstar Center in Edwards.

“It has been fast and furious since 2016 , with the idea that the county could help jump start the (behavioral health) effort,” Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said. “It has been an extremely exciting thing to be a part of.”

Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry reiterated the often cited local goal — that Eagle County residents pay as much attention to their behavioral health as they do to their physical health.

“The dialogue in the county has changed,” she said.

As part of that change, the county adopted its resolution declaring May 2021 as Mental Health Awareness Month.

“Eagle County has committed to supporting prevention, early identification, and early intervention as effective ways to reduce the burden of mental illnesses and other chronic conditions. With effective treatment, all individuals with mental illnesses – even serious mental illnesses — can make progress toward recovery and lead full, productive lives,” the resolution notes.

It’s words like those that sparked first Changing Minds parade five years ago.

“The county listened and cared. What a gift to all of us,” Harakal said.

Participants in the Changing Minds parade gather for the Eagle County commissioners meeting Tuesday. It was a dual celebration, marking both Mental Health Awareness Month and the return of public participation after months of COVID-19 limitations.
Pam Boyd/pboyd@vaildaily.com

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