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Governor Polis Visits Eagle River Valley to Talk Behavioral Health alongside Vail Health and County Partners

Today, Governor Jared Polis visited Eagle County to learn more about Vail Health’s recently announced $60 million investment in behavioral health care for the valley. Speaking to an audience at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards, Colorado, the Governor noted the challenges the community faces due to a lack of coordinated resources, and how critical the new behavioral health initiative will be to the health of the community.

Governor Polis recognized Vail Health and applauded the financial commitment made by its Board of Directors, saying, “I wanted to celebrate the important role that Vail Health has taken. Thank you for getting ahead of the curve on this. We deeply appreciate Vail Health’s true leadership in meeting the behavioral health needs of the valley.”

Vail Health President and CEO Will Cook took a moment to recognize the many healthcare workers, educators and community leaders who have been on the front lines of the initiative. “While it’s a multi-faceted problem, the single most important component to being successful in tackling behavioral health is that it must be a community-wide, ground-up effort,” he said.

Currently, mountain towns across the west are being labeled as part of the “suicide belt” in the United States. Vail Health emergency room visits for anxiety and depression rose 360% (from 63 to 290) between 2013 and 2018. Eagle County lost 17 people to suicide in 2018, up 183% from 2016. While the $1.3 million contributed by Eagle County to support behavioral health initiatives, including funds raised from marijuana sales and excise tax, is a start, more needs to be done.

Director of Eagle County Public Health Chris Lindley, who has been instrumental to the initiative, spoke to its vision. “We’re a community that builds its recognition and enthusiasm around physical health, with skiing, mountain biking and other activities, but we seem to have forgotten our behavioral health. We must spend as much time, money and effort on our behavioral health.”

Vail Health’s funding commitment over the next ten years aims to transform behavioral health services in the Eagle River Valley. In partnership with Eagle County community groups, a new nonprofit collaborative is being formed to help build needed facilities, improve access to providers and lower barriers to accessing behavioral health care across the valley.

One of the many barriers is the stigma surrounding behavioral health.

“We need to start implementing this program to better our society and make it okay to talk about mental illness,” said Saphira Klearman, a student at Battle Mountain High School. “This initiative, I promise you, is going to make a change.”

Over the past year, more than 50 community stakeholders from public and private entities, along with outside experts, worked to identify key gaps in the behavioral health system. Vail Health, as the local community health system, stepped up as the backbone organization necessary to address these gaps.

The gap analysis stressed the need for a local behavioral health facility that would allow adults and adolescents to stay overnight in a crisis stabilization unit. Currently, patients must travel or be transported two hours or more for similar services. The new facility would also be home to social detox, respite and 24/7 walk-in care.

There is also a dire need for more behavioral health providers and experts in the community. Eagle County currently has 1.8 behavioral health employees for every 1,000 residents compared to the Colorado average of 2.9 per 1,000. To reach even the state average will require an additional 50 providers. The initiative will focus on bringing additional therapists, licenced clinical social workers, psychologists, counselors and psychiatrists to the community—including into schools and the county jail.

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