Vail Valley groups collectively tackle mental health needs
EAGLE — The term “collective will” is often bandied about when discussing theoretical propositions.
But it can be rare to find that ideal — an entire community working toward a single goal — in real life. It is happening right now, however, as more than 70 Eagle County governments, organizations and individuals work to improve local mental health services.
“A year ago, none of this was happening,” said Eagle County Public Health Director Chris Lindley. “It’s not going to be just one entity that gets us there. It’s going to be the entire community.”
The community of interest includes big players such as Vail Health, Eagle County and local law enforcement agencies. Entities that provide services including Mind Springs Health, Mountain Family Health and Hope Center Eagle River Valley are actively involved in the effort, as well as community organizations such as Eagle River Youth Coalition and Speak Up Reach Out.
“We have a very complex system but we are all working together to define that system and to find the gaps,” Lindley said.
Some of the gaps are easy to identify. There are no mental health hospital beds closer than Denver or Grand Junction. The need for mental health counseling services continues to grow. Local suicide rates are alarming. And while the need for more mental health options has been well documented, the dollars haven’t been.
“As it stands right now, there just isn’t enough money to address the issue,” Lindley said. “It takes time, but the community is aware of the issues and the leaders are at the table.”
At the table
Lindley noted there are three distinct groups working on local mental health needs.
The Total Health Alliance is open to anyone and everyone. The group hosts public meetings that include information sharing and discussions. The sessions regularly attract between 60 to 100 participants.
“Because there are so many organizations involved in mental health in this valley, this is how we listen to information from these different groups,” Lindley said. “They are also sharing their funding needs and the gaps in their systems.”
Eagle County also has its own Mental Health Advisory Committee — a 10 person group that advises the county commissioners about funding priorities for money generated from the local marijuana tax.
“We hear about issues through the Total Health Alliance and when something rises to be a priority, it comes to the mental health advisory committee,” Lindley said.
Finally, there is a group of local business and community leaders looking at mental health needs for workers and residents. Lindley said the group is brand new, but it has set its mission: To create a community system of services and prevention that saves lives, creates hope and changes behavioral outcomes in our county.
There is crossover in efforts and representation in these groups, particularly among the front line entities, Lindley noted.
“Vail Health has been alongside us, working hard on real solutions from the beginning,” he said. “Doris Kirchner has been integral in helping shape a community vision for a comprehensive, sustainable system approach to behavioral health, and she will continue to be very involved.”
Where’s the money?
While the groups are moving forward to identify local needs, they haven’t yet come up with funding solutions to meet them. But here is some new money being channeled to mental health services.
Last year, Eagle County voters approved a sales and excise tax for local marijuana operations with that money earmarked for mental health services. This year the sales tax is 2.5 percent and it will be increased by .5 percent annually until it reaches 5 percent.
“The thing I hear a lot is how much money is the marijuana tax bringing in?” Lindley said. The current estimate is $425,000 in 2018.
Through August, sales tax collections reach $260,000 and the excise amount was $12,000. But grow operations are just finishing up harvest so the excise collections are expected to increase during the last quarter.
Moving forward, Lindley said the county estimates marijuana tax collections will reach $510,000 in 2019 and $600,000 in 2020.
In 2018, the county commissioners also allocated $500,000 from the general fund for mental health services. The total available in 2018 is $925,000.
“Where has that money gone? The biggest item is $400,000 for school based mental health counselors,” Lindley said. The commissioners approved that funding earlier this fall after the various advisory groups identified it as their top recommendation.
New services and programs have been funded because of the marijuana tax dollars. But other big identified community needs have huge price tags that outstrip the money that can be collected.
Lindley noted that mental health in-patient facilities are expensive to build and typically operate at a loss. It would require a substantial donation to provide that service.
There are other funding possibilities for local mental health programs including grant programs operated by Vail Resorts Epic Promise and the Rob and Elana Katz Foundation. “We are actively applying for those funds,” said Lindley.
Despite the size of the challenges ahead and the difficulty of finding money, Lindley said the enormity of the local mental health need means the local effort must continue.
“One in four people experiences a mental health crisis during their lifetime,” he said “I think that the public thinks when we passed the marijuana tax, we solved the problem. We did not.”