This article and photo first appeared in the Vail Daily on June 18, 2020
EAGLE — In the past month, despair claimed the lives of more local residents than COVID-19.
The valley lost one resident to the virus. Three locals died by suicide.
Our world may be starting to reopen, but that doesn’t mean COVID-19 worry has evaporated. Distress about how to pay the rent or mortgage, anxiety about job security and desperation about how to feed the kids have become enduring concerns instead of emergency situations. Even people who aren’t struggling to avoid economic ruin or survive illness don’t really have their lives back in this age of uncertainty.
As we navigate toward our fifth month of COVID-19 existence, the disease’s sweeping presence has blanketed our lives. We are urged to stay 6 feet apart and to wear masks while shopping. We can’t just drop by the local pool or enjoy a spontaneous trip to the movies. It’s hard to plan a big event like a family reunion or a wedding. An already emotionally fraught duty such as planning a loved one’s memorial service has become an even grimmer task.
Things just aren’t right.
“I don’t think there is anyone who is not affected by COVID-19 in a behavioral health sense. It has affected all of our lives in some way,” said Chris Lindley, the executive director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. “It seems like no one is happy. No one is in a good spot right now.”
But while the Eagle Valley has clearly felt the impact of COVID-19, circumstances have found us in a position to address its emotional toll. During a community presentation this spring, Vail Health CEO Will Cook called the formation of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health a case of providence. At the very least, it was very fortuitous timing that months before COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China, the valley had launched a comprehensive mental health care system.
As statistics plainly show, the need has never been more acute than it has been over the past four months.
Life in the age of COVID-19 is uneasy, agitating and lonely.
“With most disasters or cases of trauma, there are specific timelines attached to it,” said Casey Wolfington, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health Clinical Services Director. “With COVID-19, this is something that happened and continued to happen and will continue to be part of our lives for a long time. As humans, we are not built to deal with that kind of sustained stress.”
The reality of COVID-19 life has meant a documented increase in substance abuse and mental health crisis calls. Fortunately, some of our community resources were built for crisis.
The Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley brings help directly to the person in distress. When a patient calls the Hope Center hotline, a clinician evaluates the call and can dispatch a behavioral health professional to the scene. If help is needed, law enforcement or emergency medical personnel will respond, but a clinician follows them shortly thereafter. While police or EMS personnel deal with the enforcement or medical issues at the scene, Hope Center personnel are there to help with immediate mental health needs.
“What we are able to do is give a behavioral help evaluation on scene and then do safety check-ins,” said Carrie Benway, program director for the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley. “There are no barriers to accessing help from the hotline.”
The Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley began operations in 2018. May 2020 was the program’s busiest month ever. But even that statistic doesn’t tell the complete story. The Hope Center saw its busiest month ever during a time when seasonal workers had left the valley and our population had significantly dropped.
Other community providers mirror the Hope Center trends. Colorado Mountain Medical is the dominant primary care medical facility in the valley. The practice sees more than 80 percent of the local population and this year, Colorado Mountain Medical expanded into behavioral health services. Over the past four months, the practice has seen a steady climb in behavioral health visits.
“Some of the issues we have seen include an increase in anxiety,” said Cathy Schneider of Colorado Mountain Medical. “We are seeing a huge increase in parenting needs, people managing their kids’ anxiety, and their own anxiety while working at home.”
The bad news is people are in need. The good news is they are reaching out.
“We have done a good a good job of removing the stigma of seeking help,” Lindley said.
That’s not to say that people aren’t still sometimes reluctant to reach out for behavioral health assistance. But facing current adversity, need has trumped pride. What’s more, finances shouldn’t prevent anyone from getting help.
Financial worry is a big part of COVID-19, but concerns about being able to afford treatment are simply not a barrier to getting help in Eagle County. That’s because of Olivia’s Fund.
A program offered through Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, Olivia’s Fund offers up to six free counseling sessions per year for anyone who lives or works in the Eagle River Valley and cannot afford treatment. Initially, the fund planned to begin work later this year but COVID-19 accelerated that timeline
“Because of the surge of COVID-19 in our community, we knew we couldn’t wait for a summer launch for Olivia’s Fund,” Wolfington said. “We had to remove all barriers immediately.”
Lindley noted that the program is well-funded and urged people to use the service. “There are no questions to use it. Actually, there is one question and it is, ‘Do you need help?’ If the answer is yes, then you can get help.”
Some people worry about accessing the fund because there could be people with more acute needs and more pressing money issues. Nonsense, Lindley said.
“Please use it and urge your friends to use it too,” he said.
But the valley’s behavioral health providers aren’t the only resources the community needs to weather this trying time. It is a cliché, but it’s never been more true: We are all in this together.
Asking for help, offering assistance
“We do know there are a lot of people who need help, who we can’t help,” said Benway. “What the Hope Center can do is respond when we are called.”
Before local behavioral health help can be provided, it must be requested. Sometimes that’s a big step, but it can begin with a small question.
Lindley noted that interviews with suicide survivors reveal a common theme. In the midst of their suffering, these individuals say they wish someone had asked if they were okay. As we watch our family, friends and neighbors struggle through the COVID-19 landscape of worry and loneliness, that’s a question we all need to be asking. And once we have asked, we need to listen to the response and be ready to reach out to the organizations that can help.
“Just like CPR, we want everyone to be able to identify a person in mental health crisis and get them to the help they need,” said Erin Ivie, executive director of Speak Up Reach Out. The local suicide prevention group’s website provides a clearinghouse of resources and training opportunities to that end.
Likewise, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health’s website is a comprehensive resource for local residents who need assistance or who are concerned for a loved one. The program is also hitting the streets with a series of community chats open to the public and held at local restaurants. The most recent event was held Wednesday at Moe’s Original BBQ in Eagle and attracted around 40 people for a lunchtime conversation. The next chat is planned Tuesday, June 23, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Northside Café in Avon. Lindley noted the sessions help residents get answers to their COVID-19 questions and help out businesses during these troubled days.
We have learned how challenging it is to live with COVID-19 and Lindley said the situation will likely get more difficult in the months ahead. The federal Payroll Protection Program has run its course and local businesses no longer have a safety net. That means layoffs or furloughs are on the horizon. The additional $600 federal unemployment payments will end in a month, leaving people with renewed financial concerns.
As Lindley noted, during the early days of the pandemic, nationwide people were united in the effort to isolate and prevent the spread of the disease. Today, we are divided in our strategies for living with COVID-19.
“We have done an amazing job in this community preventing and controlling COVID-19. But now the whole country is becoming more polarized about our path forward,” Lindley said.
The behavioral heath challenge now is to deal with the virus and its behavioral health implications while recognizing that heated rhetoric and divisive opinions can escalate anxiety and increase depression.
“We need to figure out how to respond to all of this in a way that doesn’t cause more damage moving forward,” Lindley said. “We want people to be open and frank about all of this.”
And ultimately, we need to come to a basic understanding, he said.
“How do we, as a community, hear each other?” Lindley said.