New data helps Aspen, other areas compare suicides, mental health issues
By Scott Condon
One way to reduce the 1,000-plus suicides that occur each year in Colorado is to integrate mental with physical health care, according to a statewide nonprofit.
Mental Health Colorado is promoting the idea that state residents should pay as much attention to what’s going on in their head as in their heart, said executive director Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker.
One tool to achieve that goal is to make free, confidential mental health screenings universal, he said.
Romanoff will be one of the featured speakers Thursday at the Aspen Hope Center’s annual community forum at Paepcke Auditorium. The presentation is free and open to the public.
Romanoff said he was active in mental health issues when he was in the Legislature, but he became particularly interested soon after a first cousin, who was more like a sister, died by suicide nearly three years ago. He joined Mental Health Colorado less than three months after that incident.
Romanoff understands that good decisions cannot be made without reliable data. Therefore, one of the big initiatives by Mental Health Colorado has been to develop a “data dashboard” that provides information on a variety of mental health and suicide issues in each Colorado county. The dashboard allows users to compare their county’s information with state averages. It can be found atmentalhealthcolorado.org/dashboard.
Pitkin County had a higher suicide rate than Colorado as a whole when combining the years of 2013-15, according to the dashboard. The county had a suicide rate of 22.6 per 100,000 residents compared with 19.1 for Colorado.
In Pitkin County, 11 percent of the population ages 5 and older reported eight or more days of “poor mental health” in the prior 30 days compared with a state average of 11.8 percent, according to the 2017 Colorado Health Access Survey.
On the plus side, Pitkin County was at or above state averages for the number of behavioral health employees, such as addiction counselors, clinical social workers and psychologists.
The data suggest that 9.2 percent of Pitkin County residents didn’t receive mental health care when it was needed. The top reason was the cost.
“That’s the biggest barrier statewide,” Romanoff said.
He gives credit to Eagle County for taking steps to try to eliminate that barrier. The county successfully asked voters to approve a tax on retail marijuana sales in the Nov. 7 election. It will raise an estimated $1.2 million annually. The revenue will go to mental health organizations and efforts.
Suicide awareness is surging in the Roaring Fork Valley after the tragic decision by a 15-year-old Basalt student to take his life earlier this month. The family has taken the brave step to get immediately and directly involved in suicide awareness and prevention efforts.
“I think they’re making a great statement,” Aspen Hope Center executive director Michelle Muething said.
The Hope Center undertook one of its most intense counseling efforts in its seven-year history after the death of the young man Nov. 3. Seven in-house counselors and eight community professionals who volunteered their services worked with first responders, teachers and students in the Basalt middle and high schools after the incident. Hope Center personnel put in an estimated 120 hours on the case.
Muething credited many students for being receptive to talking about how the suicide of a popular classmate affected them.
“The kids were very supportive of us being there,” she said.
Some reported concerns about friends — breaking the norm of keeping it among themselves, Muething said. When concerns were raised, counselors would check in with that particular person and offer ongoing help.
“The look in their face was, ‘Wow, someone is concerned about me,'” Muething said.
The Hope Center has about 750 contacts with people per year. About 21 percent of its clients are younger than 18. The Hope Center gives a “We Can Talk” presentation at Roaring Fork Valley schools to encourage students to seek help.
“I think the awareness piece has definitely improved,” she said.
The annual community forum is designed to keep building awareness of mental health issues.
This article was originally published in the Aspen Times.