Amid a global pandemic that has resulted locally in mandated isolation, the closing of the ski resort and the loss of thousands of jobs, counselors and law enforcement officers valleywide are more concerned than ever about the mental health of a community that already bears an alarming suicide rate.
Compounding a mental health crisis, a fatal car accident involving a longtime local resident at the wheel and a five-year-old girl in downtown Aspen last Sunday also left many witnesses feeling traumatized, and in a number of cases, receiving therapy. The officers who responded to that call one week ago are “feeling a sense of personal loss,” Aspen Police assistant chief Bill Linn said Friday.
The department has encouraged all of the officers at the scene “to seek professional help with processing,” he said.
Looking at the big-picture mental health of the community right now as a whole, Linn said the department is fielding calls revealing behaviors “that are unfamiliar to our little mountain town,” and downright shocking.
“We have veteran officers seeing things that they have never seen before in their career,” Linn said. He can only assume that these behaviors are triggered by people’s stresses during a time of uncertainty.
Linn declined to elaborate on said behaviors because in the case of mental health, discussing specific cases means revealing people. More importantly, he said the calls and consequent loss of control are beginning to take a toll on his staff.
“It makes it not only hard for us to do our job, but it’s hard to adapt to,” he said, “because our sense of normalcy has been so shaken up by some of the things going on around us.”
‘No one is immune to this’
Among the many emotional stressors at work amid the coronavirus pandemic, the loss of control is seemingly one that no one can escape.
“No one is immune to this,” said grief counselor and Pathfinders director Allison Daily, who has worked with many clients grappling with this notion as of late. She encourages clients to shift their outlook and consider the many facets of their life that they can still control.
“We can control how we even choose to see something,” Daily said. “We can look at [the pandemic] as a threat, or we can look at it like, ‘Wow, I have an opportunity to really see this as something where I can actually become a better person through this. I can choose to do the right thing.’”
Daily also reminds clients to act with intention and to be cognizant of how they are choosing to spend their day — and in many cases, newfound free time. It sounds simple, she said, but can make a huge difference in one’s disposition.
More than anything, Daily implores people to reach out to any of the local counseling or crisis centers or the coronavirus hotline (available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) that addresses mental health specifically.
For 30-year-old Cole Sharpe, a phone call only a few months ago to Mind Springs Health saved him from suicide. Sharpe — who recently relocated from Aspen to Denver for educational reasons but still considers the valley home and visits often — has struggled with depression and anxiety for nearly a decade.
He believes it is important to talk about mental health to help reduce the stigma and reinforce the notion of “you are not alone.” Sharpe credits his network of close friends and organizations like Mind Springs for saving his life on more than one occasion. “The support system [in the valley] is so great,” Sharpe said. “Aspen and Colorado as a whole, I feel like they really care about their people.”
While self-quarantining alone at home in Denver after checking all of the boxes for the coronavirus, Sharpe knows to pick up the phone if dark thoughts begin to infiltrate his mind.
After experiencing all of the symptoms, last week Kelly Brenninger of Aspen also diagnosed herself and her son with the coronavirus. Because Pitkin County lacks testing capacity for the virus, Brenninger, 52, decided she would use her experience as an opportunity to help inform others. But what she received in return was judgment and feeling ostracized by her own community.
“People act as if you’ve brought this upon yourself or as if you’re acting irresponsibly,” said Brenninger, who considers herself a healthy person and is seldom sick. “We’re already isolated, but then to be made to feel shame or like you’re diseased? This is a whole new thing for me.”
When Brenninger called the hospital to discuss and report her symptoms, the dispatch told her not to come in and to stay at home and self-quarantine.
“We’re shunned from the hospital and shunned from the community. It’s a really isolating feeling,” Brenninger said. “I feel like there’s no platform to share information where you don’t feel like a leper or like you have cooties.”
Brenninger also worries about the well-being of the valley’s elder population right now — like her mother, who lives alone and who she and her son have stayed away from since the start of their quarantine.
Connection in a time of isolation
While most local counselors are now working from home and meeting with clients virtually, mental health resources in the valley are ramping up their efforts to help people feel connected and supported even when they are physically isolated.
“What we’re noticing, as an organization, is that people are wanting to have connection,” Daily said. “And they’ll take it by phone, video conferencing — they’ll take it however they can get it.”
Pathfinders recently launched an online resiliency workshop that aims to give people the proper tools to shift their perspective and overcome moments of hardship. “We’ve got people signing up for that left and right,” Daily said.
And because she is a firm believer in “meeting people where they are,” Daily still enjoys meeting with and going on walks with clients while safely maintaining 6 feet of social distance.
Aspen Strong founder and counselor Christina King said the organization is “working on all of the ways in which we can support the community.”
“Everybody is teaming up together,” said King. The organization, which serves as an umbrella to the valley’s many health care providers, recently crafted a weekly newsletter that’s chock full of resources and is working to launch a virtual town hall via Zoom.
Mind Springs Health offers many online tools that specifically address depression and anxiety. Jackie Skramstad, Mind Spring’s clinical operations manager, said the organization is trying to creatively find ways to meet the needs of the community and will regularly reassess its methods.
In moments of hardship, many people are also using the opportunity to give back. A number of local chefs and restaurateurs, in particular, have provided food, full meals or delivery services — often to the community’s most vulnerable — at no cost.
Earlier this week, Aspen chef Adam Norwig concocted and delivered a number of different soups to people for free. “Mostly, I want people to know they aren’t alone,” Norwig said. “People need to know they are supported.”
Targeted specifically at the elder population, local chef Randy Placeres is offering shopping and cooking services as well as a “no contact catering drop-off meal plan.”
“We have to rise above and be a strong community,” said Placeres.
Restaurants like Mi Chola in Aspen and Gwyn’s High Alpine in Snowmass doled out free food and produce earlier this week. Meat and Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop on Thursday started its “Bonnie’s Soup Kitchen” and Aspen Skiing Co. on Friday distributed free produce and dairy products, which cleared out within an hour.
“I’ve seen a lot of graciousness in the community and people saying, ‘Well, I’m making money, so how do I help out? How do I bring you dinner?’ And stepping up and volunteering,” King said. “Our community is filled with so many volunteers and people who want to give back, and we’re seeing it more than ever right now.”
Mental health resources in the Roaring Fork Valley
Colorado Crisis Services: 1-844-493-8255 (TALK) or text talk to 38225
The Hope Center:
Eagle River Valley: 970-306-4673
Mind Springs Health: 877-886-8192
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