More help on the way: How Eagle County is building up behavioral health resources
There’s still work to do, but we’re far better off than a few years ago
Editor’s note: 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.
It wasn’t so long ago that Eagle County was in a behavioral health crisis. One of the problems was a lack of resources to help people in crisis. That’s changed, and continues to change.
The change started in 2017. Eagle County voters by a wide margin passed Ballot Measure 1A, which imposed an additional tax on recreational marijuana sales. Vail Health in April 2019 pledged $60 million over 10 years to behavioral health projects, and began a separate $100 million fundraising effort in Dec. 2019. Vail Health also created Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, which has put resources into local clinics and is a partner in a number of other nonprofit organizations.
Today, someone in crisis has a number of options for help, including the state’s only full-time crisis response team.
Avon Police Chief Greg Daly appreciates the progress made so far.
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Daly was one of the first people involved in SpeakUp ReachOut, a suicide prevention effort that was first funded by the town of Avon.
The Avon Police Department also made the decision several years ago, before Daly was chief, that Avon officers would no longer handcuff people with behavioral health issues. At the time, a trip to jail or the Vail Health emergency room were about the only options for someone in crisis. Anyone needing inpatient care had to be transported to Grand Junction, Denver or Boulder. All of those facilities are often short on space.
The creation of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health provided a partner for a number of local groups — including SpeakUp ReachOut — that work to help those with behavioral health problems.
“There was an amazing gathering of minds,” Daly said.
Help, at all times
The Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley is a big part of the area’s behavioral health resources.
The center has full-time, licensed clinicians in 14 local schools. The center also has enough licensed clinicians for 24/7 response for others in crisis. Center director Carrie Benway said the center is part of a “co-response” system for behavioral health calls.
When a call comes in, police respond first, but paramedics and a clinician from the Hope Center are also dispatched.
In case more than one call comes in, the Hope Center as of Aug. 1 had sufficient staffing to have two people per shift “about 85% of the time,” Benway said.
Staffing has also been boosted elsewhere in the valley’s behavioral health services. Employees at a number of valley businesses can receive up to six free sessions with a therapist through the Mountain Strong program. Others can use Olivia’s Fund to pay for up to six sessions.
Businesses pay for therapy through Mountain Strong. Olivia’s Fund was established in 2020 to honor the memory of Olivia Ortega, who died by suicide at age 13.
Dana Erpelding is the operations manager for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.
Erpelding said Colorado Mountain Medical — part of the Vail Health system — has two “double-board certified” psychiatrists on staff. Those people are qualified to work with children, adolescents and adults, Erpelding said.
The staff also has a pain medication specialist and a sports psychologist.
Eagle Valley Behavioral Health also has three bilingual specialists working to make connections with the valley’s Spanish-speaking residents.
Erpelding said the work to reach out to those residents focuses on “trusted sources.” Those include local churches, as well as MIRA — the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance — which meets people where they are.
Erpelding said the bus generally has both medical and behavioral health clinicians, and provides residents with advice on where to find help.
“We want to reduce those barriers,” she said.
How are we doing?
There has been a lot of progress in providing help to those in need.
“It’s encouraging that the community is mobilized and aware of the needs and issues. Without that, nothing will ever happen,” said Vincent Atchity, the CEO of Mental Health Colorado.
Mental Health Colorado is a statewide nonprofit that seeks grants and pulls people together to make progress addressing behavioral health issues.
While there’s been progress, Atchity said there’s still a lot of work to do.
“There’s a lot of discrimination associated with mental health, especially with the use of substances,” Atchity said, adding “there’s a grave lack of resources supporting recovery from addiction.”
Alcohol is perhaps the most-damaging of those substances. Atchity noted that alcohol abuse is “taking a long-term toll… it’s a cost we all bear.”
More help on the way
While plenty’s been done, there’s more help on the horizon. Vail Health this year unveiled plans for a behavioral health center to be built at the Northstar Center in Edwards, on the southwest corner of the community’s Interstate 70 interchange.
If approved by the Eagle County Commissioners, the center will provide inpatient and outpatient treatment. The center could open as soon as 2023.
Having local inpatient beds available will take a lot of stress from the current system. At the moment, between 12 and 15 patients per month are transported to inpatient facilities at least two hours away in good weather.
In addition to keeping people closer to home, family and other support, the new center will also make it easier to track those who are taken to far-flung facilities.
Dr. Teresa Haynes is the clinical director of the Hope Center. Haynes said it can sometimes be “challenging” to track patients, even with multiple calls. At times, patients transported for 72-hour holds are kept for five or seven days. That makes follow-up services difficult.
At the moment, people from the Hope Center and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health are working to coordinate site visits at those facilities to improve that coordination.
The new center in Edwards “will be amazing,” Haynes said. “It’s hard to coordinate beds (elsewhere).”
There’s still plenty of work to do, and it may never be enough. But a boost is coming from outside the valley in the form of roughly $400 million in federal funding to be distributed statewide.
Atchity is part of the group working on ways to distribute those funds.
Atchity said the consensus among group members is it would be more effective to concentrate those funds into a handful of larger projects instead of many smaller efforts. How that will affect Eagle County remains to be seen.
But, Atchity said, growing awareness of behavioral health problems and the need for resources is here to stay.
“This is not a cat that’s going to be stuffed back into the bag,” Atchity said. “Nobody’s going to go back to thinking failure is acceptable.”
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
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