This article first appeared in the Vail Daily on November 27, 2019
When living in Eagle County, there are certain unique aspects of our community that residents come to accept. We accept that when it snows, travel can be difficult. We accept that when there is no snow, there is often construction. We accept that visitors struggle with the concept of roundabouts. And sadly, for much of Eagle County’s existence, residents have been forced to accept a lack of local, accessible, and affordable behavioral health services.
Our community is facing a behavioral health crisis. In 2018, Eagle County experienced 17 deaths by suicide and emergency dispatchers reported 324 suicide-attempt contact calls. There have been 10 suicides in 2019. Nearly one-quarter of seventh and eighth-grade students in our community reported that they seriously considered suicide in 2017. This reality makes the word “crisis” seem like an understatement.
The Federal Health Resources and Service Administration defines Eagle County as a Mental Health Professional Shortage Area, which means that although our community has a network of exceptional behavioral health providers, the small number of providers we have cannot address the volume of behavioral health needs within our community.
The mission of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, a nonprofit service of Vail Health, is to transform our local behavioral health system. EVBH strives to eliminate barriers and increase access to behavioral health care by focusing on all segments of the social, environmental, and health care continuum. EVBH is currently targeting behavioral health landscape transformation through several key initiatives and partnerships. I would like to highlight two priority initiatives.
Transforming primary care
In most communities, primary care providers are the cornerstone of identification, diagnosis, treatment, and referral for all types of disorders, whether they are somatic, psychological, or a combination of both. Integrated primary care is quickly becoming the gold standard for both the medical and psychological community. Eighty percent of individuals with a behavioral health disorder visit a primary care provider at least once per year. Fifty percent of all behavioral health disorders are treated in primary care and 20% of patients seeking services within primary care will meet the criteria for a behavioral health disorder over a given year.
Within our community, Colorado Mountain Medical has served as the primary medical home for the majority of our population for over 35 years. With CMM’s recent merger with Vail Health, CMM, Vail Health and EVBH are working to expand CMM’s multi-specialty clinic to include comprehensive behavioral health. CMM has hired a behavioral health team, which includes psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and a psychiatrist. This comprehensive team will transform the landscape of behavioral health services by providing all levels of outpatient behavioral health services within our community’s established primary care setting.
In our community, accessibility and affordability are identified as the most common barriers to accessing therapeutic services. As a result, individuals and families often avoid seeking necessary services until they are in a state of crisis. EVBH strives to reduce all barriers to accessing and receiving behavioral health services. We do not want anyone to look to their bank account to determine whether they can afford to save a life.
In early 2020, EVBH will be launching a community-wide scholarship program that will provide financial support for anyone who is seeking therapeutic services and identifies cost as a barrier to access. EVBH’s initiative is inspired by a similar program in Summit County developed by Building Hope that has provided over 750 scholarships since inception in July 2017. EVBH’s scholarship program will be designed to ensure our community can access needed behavioral health services without the consideration of possible financial barriers.
EVBH is working to launch these priorities as quickly as possible, as we recognize the importance and need within our community. For those in need of immediate resources, we encourage the community to visit EVBH’s new website: EagleValleybh.org, which provides a comprehensive directory of all local behavioral health providers in our community. Users can search the directory by insurance, specialty, and practice location. This website also includes emergency hotline information for those in crisis and early warning signs for loved ones to look out for. All information is available in Spanish.
In partnership with Vail Health, EVBH is dedicated to creating a community where we spend as much time, effort, and resources on our behavioral health as we do our physical health. We endeavor to create a stigma-free community that discusses behavioral health concerns in the same manner as we do physical ailments.
EVBH is working on several initiatives to accomplish this. We recognize that access to services is only one of many steps necessary to transform Eagle County’s behavioral health landscape …but we look forward to walking alongside our community to create a new way forward. It takes a valley.
Dr. Casey Wolfington is a licensed psychologist and the community behavioral health director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, a nonprofit service of Vail Health. Dr. Wolfington has worked to enhance the behavioral health workforce in our community for close to twelve years.