Vail Valley counselors combat mental health stigma |

Vail Valley counselors combat mental health stigma

Lauren Glendenning
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL VALLEY – One Vail Valley counselor said a former patient with a husband and children came in for therapy at a time when she was already thinking about leaving everyone behind to start a new life.

The woman had waited to seek help for so long that she was contemplating things that might have been unthinkable had she sought help earlier, the therapist said.

Mental health disorders have a stigma surrounding them just about everywhere you go, but for those in the Vail Valley, the stigma is often magnified.

Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, isn’t truly anonymous here because it’s a small valley where everybody seems to know everybody, said April Wilson, a licensed social worker with the Samaritan Counseling Center in Edwards.

“They don’t want people to know (that they’re seeking professional help),” Wilson said. “They fear others will look at them differently.”

Mental Health America of Colorado, a nonprofit that promotes mental health and expands access to care, defines mental disorders as diseases that cause mild to severe disturbances in thinking, perception and behavior. The key word is that it’s a disease.

“You wouldn’t be ashamed to say you have cancer or diabetes because it’s something going on with you biologically,” Wilson said. “(Mental illnesses) are biologically-based illnesses.”

Wilson said people sometimes assume they can take medication and the problem will go away. She compares it to allergies – the medicine won’t eliminate the root of the problem, the thing that’s causing that allergic reaction.

“Mental health really is a physical health issue,” Wilson said. “Because you’re thinking is so skewed, you need therapy, too – you cant just take the medication (without therapy).”

People are too often worried that going to therapy means they’re “crazy,” Wilson said.

“We’re all a little bit crazy, we just need the right stimulus for it to manifest,” she said.

For one person, that stimulus could be a failed relationship or the death of a loved one, for somebody else it could be the loss of a job or built-up stress.

“It’s right there in everybody, but what is going to be the trigger for you,” Wilson said.

Cathy Zeeb, a Gypsum-based counselor, hopes to change the way people think about therapy so the stigma can be erased.

“I hope people can start using (therapy) as wellness,” Zeeb said.

People get overwhelmed thinking about problems and feel they have to fix everything immediately. Zeeb said patients need to work on one thing at a time, in manageable pieces, in order to get better.

“We all need somebody to talk to,” Zeeb said. “There’s no way we’re expected to deal with this life, every minute of every day, and be 100 percent.”

Zeeb said she even sees a therapist and that many therapists see someone.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Zeeb said. “I think it’s important for people to know it’s OK to talk to somebody.”

In a ski town atmosphere, where partying is often on the agenda, many people with emotional pain or stress try to bury their problems with alcohol or drugs. It’s often easier to cope with problems by taking substances that seem to do the coping for you.

“We’re a quick-fix society,” Zeeb said. “But for the most part, whatever you need to take care of in your life, whatever the problem is that could be fixed, you just won’t fix it (when using substances).”

The problem with substance abuse is also that it can not only prolong a problem, but it can also create problems.

Wilson said research shows that there are genetic markers or predispositions for severe mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The problem is that alcohol and drugs can turn those predispositions on, and mental health professionals don’t know how to turn it back off.

“And quitting the drug use isn’t going to turn it off,” Wilson said.

Substance abuse can also make people lose their inhibitions and do things that might deepen the emotional pain or guilt, Wilson said.

There are plenty of options in Eagle County, from private practices to places like the Samaritan Center and Colorado West Mental Health, but it’s important to find the right therapist or counselor who knows how to treat the specific problem a patient needs help solving.

If a person has suffered some kind of crisis or trauma in life and sees someone who doesn’t specialize in trauma work, the problem could get worse, Wilson said.

“Talk to other people you know and ask who they’ve had a good experience with,” she said. “No one therapist does it all.”

Zeeb said people thinking about getting help should think of it as simply taking care of themselves, like getting a haircut or working out at the gym.

“It takes time,” Zeeb said. “We’re really hard on ourselves in this society to be better than we really feel or to pretend we’re better than we really feel.”

Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or

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