This article and photo first appeared in the Vail Daily on February 1, 2020
EAGLE — A simple statistic can be both disheartening and encouraging.
And, of course, numbers alone never tell a whole story. That’s particularly true when discussing a fraught topic such as deaths by suicide.
“In 2019, we ended the year with 11 suicides in Eagle County,” said Chris Lindley, executive director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. “That is 11 more than we ever want to see.”
But that number also represents a 30% drop from 2018, which saw 17 suicide deaths. That was the highest number of suicides in a single year ever recorded in the county.
“We are hopefully trending, now, in the right direction,” said Lindley. “Some of the reasons why we are optimistic about the numbers are certainly the number of resources, support and awareness now available across the community. All of those things have dramatically increased.”
Suicide comes from a place of hopelessness. To effectively address the issue, people need to understand that help is available. Lindley said 2019 marked the moment when that message became mainstream in Eagle County.
“The community started a very aggressive anti-stigma campaign called the Long Live campaign,” he said. The Long Live message is plastered everywhere from newspaper ads to ECO bus wraps. Lindley said the goal is to let people know that behavioral health needs are as debilitating and as prevalent as physical health issues.
“Behavioral issues are very common. One of four of us is going to have a significant mental health issue during our lifetime, “ Lindley said.
Bringing the behavioral health issue to the forefront of community conversation is the first step in addressing it, he said.
“For me, the punchline is we go out of our way for individuals battling cancer,” he said. “I want to tune into that same desire to help our fellow citizens, neighbors or friends who have challenges with mental health. We need to rally around those people as well.”
On-the-ground, behavioral health resources are now available in Eagle County during crisis situations through the Hope Center Eagle River Valley.
Hope Center Eagle River Valley is an expansion of a program from the Roaring Fork Valley. Hope Center operates in partnership with law enforcement services and community resources.
Under the Hope Center model, a crisis clinician screens every potential mental health 911 or suicide hotline call to determine risks, safety and need. Typically, within five minutes of launching a screening, the clinician knows whether or not to send help to the caller.
If help is needed, then law enforcement or emergency medical personnel can be sent out, followed by a clinician shortly thereafter. While police or EMS personnel deal with law enforcement or medical issues at the scene, Hope Center personnel are there to help with immediate mental health needs.
“The fact is that today … in this community if you call 911 and you have a behavioral health emergency a clinician is going to respond to your home with a community paramedic,”Lindley said. “Their goal will be to provide support and stabilize you at your home and not transport you.”
One year into the program, Lindley said the Hope Center statistics are encouraging.
“We know that over 100 lives have been significantly affected. That’s 100 people who would have been transported to the emergency room or the jail, but were instead provided care and support at their homes,” Lindley said. “That has had a massive impact on those people’s lives.”
Along with crisis services, 2019 has seen an increase in behavioral health resources in the community.
The prime example is the decision by Colorado Mountain Medical to integrate behavioral health professionals into the practice, Lindley said. He noted that Colorado Mountain Medical provides medical services to 90% of the valley’s population and called the practice’s expansion into behavioral health services a game-changer.
“They are killing the stigma because when you are in their waiting room … you are there with everyone else in the community who is going to see their doctor,” Lindley said.
Additionally, Colorado Mountain Medical accepts all major insurance, which is helping break the cost-burden barrier for behavioral health treatment, Lindley added.
When the results of the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey showed that almost one-third of local youth surveyed exhibited signs of depression and one-fifth had seriously contemplated suicide, local health leaders were spurred to action.
“Currently we have 10 behavioral health counselors working within our school system and three more will be added this year,” Lindley said.
“The impact with the school with these counselors has been extraordinary,” he continued. “I hear from parents and teachers that they can’t imagine what it was like before.”
The school-based counselors are a great example of how community organizations are partnering to address behavioral health needs, Lindley said.
Eagle County provided funding to launch the school-based counselor program, providing an example to other entities. As a result, more organizations and individuals have partnered together to make behavioral health a community priority.
Lindley noted that law enforcement, emergency medical services, local governments, the Colorado Health Foundation, Vail Health and private donors are all working together to address the need for improved local behavioral health services.
Lindley noted that the Eagle Valley Behavioral Health Fund will release $3.3 million in 2020 to support community partners. That money will go to organizations such as Speak Up Reach Out, the local suicide prevention group.
“They are a partner who has done so much in this community,” Lindley said. “Speak Up Reach Out has been battling the fight against suicide on a shoestring budget. But right now, they are hiring four full-time positions and they will also have a full-time executive director.”
“You are going to see a transformation through our community partners,” Lindley continued. “Everyone is working together on a common goal. That’s why I am more optimistic every day. I have never heard of this happening in another community.”