For Eagle County mental health efforts, 2018 was year of sad statistics, hopeful changes
EAGLE — It’s been a tough year for locals and organizations involved in suicide prevention efforts.
But along with the bitter sadness that comes with marking a year that saw the valley’s highest number of deaths by suicide ever, there have been hopeful changes.
“This year has obviously been very tough for people who do work in suicide prevention, but we have learned a lot,” said Erin Ivie, executive director of Speak Up Reach Out, the suicide prevention coalition of Eagle County.
During the past 12 months, the coalition shared those lessons, offering suicide prevention training and educating in the valley about the issue. According to statistics provided by Eagle County Public Health Director Chris Lindley, Speak Up Reach Out educated nearly 1,800 students about the signs of suicide and trained more than 700 community members in suicide prevention.
“This is up 450 percent over 2017 figures because the conversation has been started and people want to get involved in suicide prevention in the community. Speak Up Reach Out used to have to beg people to learn about suicide prevention, but now people are begging or more information and more resources in the community,” Lindley said.
“It does give me hope that people are reaching out to get help,” Ivie said. “The rough estimate is that every person trained will touch six lives at a minimum.”
Picture of Progress
The past year marked a new dynamic for Eagle County. Mental health became a community priority and tax dollars were allocated to help address the need.
“While we have a long way to go to adequately address all of the mental health needs in our community, we are very pleased with the progress we have made so far,” said Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry. “As we look at the initiatives that have taken place over the past 12 months, it paints a picture of progress.”
While 2018 marked the first year of the community’s mental health efforts, a key event that triggered the new emphasis actually happened in November 2017. That’s when Eagle County voters passed a ballot issue that placed a sales tax on retail marijuana and an excise tax on marijuana cultivation. With that action, Eagle County became the first county in the state to tax marijuana to support mental health initiatives.
The tax collection will incrementally increase over a five-year period to 5 percent. In 2018, the rate was 2.5 percent and collections are expected to reach roughly $400,000. The total collection is estimated to be roughly $480,000 in 2019. To help get mental health services off the ground, this year the county commissioners allocated an additional $500,000.
Two primary programs have been launched as a result of the funding — mental health counselors at local schools and the Hope Center Eagle River Valley.
“Five of six additional mental health therapists are now in place in our schools, with funding that comes from both Eagle County Schools and Eagle County,” Lindley said. “In 2019, we hope to bring this number to 17, ensuring mental health therapists are accessible to every student in the valley.”
The other big county initiative in 2018 was to open Hope Center Eagle River Valley. The program began operations Oct. 1, providing free crisis care in homes, schools and other places of need in the community
“Licensed mental health clinicians co-respond with law enforcement and paramedics to the scene of a mental health calls to stabilize people in crisis and link them to community resources to meet their needs,” Lindley said. “This was an initiative and startup led by Eagle County Community Paramedics, Our Community Foundation, every law enforcement entity in the county.”
“This program gets people the help they need when and where they need it,” Ivie said.
Lindley noted that to date, the Hope Center Eagle River Valley has served 206 individuals. Forty-two of the calls were classified as crisis responses, where the program provided mental health care at the patient’s residence.
Bridging the gaps
In late 2018, the county commissioners also approved an additional $385,967 from the county’s mental health fund, to be spent in late 2018 and early 2019 to support six different organizations that address the biggest mental health care gaps in the community.
“Funding will support prevention, education, crisis and treatment services across the county including efforts in our jail, schools and businesses,” Lindley said.
For example, in 2019, the funding has been allocated to provide a licensed mental health and substance abuse counselor and a part-time case manager to serve all Eagle County jail inmates in need of behavior health services.
Along with additional resources, Lindsay noted mental health issues have become an important part of the community dialogue. Eagle River Youth Coalition has dedicated its Eat Chat Parent program — which runs through the school year — to mental heath education. More than 800 participants have attended the sessions about the risks of social media, bullying and increasing resilience.
As the spotlight shines on mental health needs, Lindley noted that community members have stepped forward.
“(Vail Resorts CEO) Rob Katz and Elana Amsterdam (Katz’ wife) recent awarded this valley $429,000,” Lindley said. That money will address in-home crisis response and the addition of a mental health provider for the MIRA program.
MIRA — Mobile Intercultural Response Alliance — launched in July. A converted RV brings community resources to isolated populations in the county.
“MIRA is helping to reach individuals who are isolated due to mental health issues, lack of transportation and age or mobility issues,” Lindley said.
The year ahead will also bring changes to Speak Up Reach Out. Ivie said the organization will fund a full-time programming director in 2019.
“That is a huge step for us and for the community in addressing suicide prevention,” she said.
As Ivie looks at the accomplishments of the past year, she said funding and programs are, naturally, vital. But perhaps the biggest change is the local attitude adjustment regarding mental health issues.
“I do think we are making huge strides in de-stigmatizing the issue and making mental health conversations the norm,” she said. “It’s been a long year, but look at all the progress we have made.”
Company officials say every aspect of Vail management is now focused on attaining the company’s goal of achieving a zero net operating footprint by 2030. Vail Resorts calls the plan their “Commitment to Zero,” and defines it a zero net carbon emissions by 2030, zero waste to landfills, and zero operating impact on forests and natural habitat.