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Number of calls to crisis hotlines rises; Aspen Hope Center clinicians powering through

Crisis clinician Karmen Pittenger answers a call at the Aspen Hope Center on Tuesday. Pittenger has worked at the center for more than eight years.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Crisis clinician Karmen Pittenger answers a call at the Aspen Hope Center on Tuesday. Pittenger has worked at the center for more than eight years.

Crisis hotlines in Colorado have seen call volumes rise since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020.

The Aspen Hope Center, a nonprofit serving people in crisis between Aspen and Parachute, has 11 employees trained as crisis clinicians and seven working in the role full time.

Jillian Standley is one of the clinicians.

“The first thing that I would do is ensure that they are safe, meaning that they are not going to hurt themselves,” she said. “So, just determine what we can do to support this individual. If they are suicidal, we would take the steps of finding where they're at and doing an evaluation on them.”

According to Standley, not everyone who calls the hotline is at risk of suicide and callers aren’t always sure whether their problems constitute a crisis.

But Standley and her fellow clinicians share the same sentiment: If you are at your lowest low and need support, they’ll be there for you.

“Some people just call for resources or to get connected,” she said. “We don't determine what a crisis is for someone else.”

During their 24- and 48-hour shifts, the clinicians do a lot more than answer crisis calls.

On top of paperwork and debriefing sessions, they also follow up with certain callers 24 hours, two days, three weeks and three months later.

If a clinician picks up 10 calls in one day, they might have to do 40 follow-up calls in the weeks and months to come.

As call volumes rise, the work grows exponentially.

Kenny Sanders conducts an intake interview with a client at the front desk of the Aspen Hope Center on Monday. Sanders transfers calls to crisis clinicians who are on duty and answers callers questions about resources and therapy.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Kenny Sanders conducts an interview with a client at the front desk of the Aspen Hope Center on Monday. Sanders transfers calls to crisis clinicians who are on duty and answers callers' questions about resources and therapy.

Michelle Muething, executive director of the Aspen Hope Center, said clinicians also do in-person visits when a caller presents a certain amount of risk to themselves or someone else, and the number of those high-risk assessments has gone up in the past year as well.

“From 2019 to 2021, there was a 137% increase in assessments for children who were 11 and younger,” Muething said. “Then there was a 64% increase in crisis assessments between 12- and 18-year-olds. So our adolescents, per our data, are not doing well.”

Although young people are having a particularly hard time, data from the Aspen Hope Center shows that adults are struggling too.

The center’s annual report shows there was a 28% increase in high-risk assessments for people in their 30s.

Muething said this category constitutes the parent group of some of the children ages 11 and younger, and the parallel increases reflect a family dynamic.

Mia King is another crisis clinician at the Aspen Hope Center.

More than two years into the pandemic, she and the other clinicians are tired.

“It's challenging because [in a] crisis — you can't plan anything," King said. “Sometimes we'll have weeks at a time, every once in a while months at a time, where every shift is just really intense.”

King has been with the center for two years, but she’s leaving soon to return to her hometown of New Orleans.

And she’s not planning to work in crisis management again right away.

King’s co-workers also feel that the job is taxing.

Karmen Pittenger said she doesn’t sleep too well.

“I sleep with one eye open and one ear open and my phone in my bed,” Pittenger said. “That's not a restful sleep.”

Another clinician, Kelly Cooper, said when she is on a solo shift, the competing demands can be overwhelming.

“We have gone on scenes for lots of really tough situations,” Cooper said. “And then we'll be getting calls from schools where the kids are suicidal, and we're getting calls from the hospital. Everyone's like, ‘Why can't you be here, like, right now?’ And you have to prioritize and really manage the chaos.”

According to Pittenger, the Roaring Fork Valley can be especially hard for new residents.

“You come here, and you have an underlying mental health issue,” Pittenger said. “And then you're out there working with a challenging community who come here to visit and explore and have fun. And you go home to your studio apartment, and you're having trouble paying rent. It becomes overwhelming. You have no support systems, you have no family. It's a hard place to be.”

Cooper agreed, particularly compared with her previous work in Boulder.

“I've seen a lot more suicide, it feels like, out here in the Roaring Fork, more completed suicides and very serious attempts,” Cooper said. “Definitely, you know, less workers and more calls, so it's difficult.”

Before March 2020, King said callers were already struggling with things such as mental illness, housing and substance abuse, but the pandemic made it much worse.

“It just added on this really heavy, gray cloud over everyone,” she said.

Muething said the center is working to hire as many experienced people as they can to alleviate some of the pressure.

Since the pandemic began, six clinicians have left the center — some because of housing issues and struggles with the demanding schedule.

But the center has also hired 12 employees across the organization to fill the gap and accommodate some of their new programs.

Pittenger has been a crisis clinician at the Aspen Hope Center for more than eight years — far longer than anyone else.

“I think that I am a person that's built with grit and not a lot of people have grit,” Pittenger said. “So if you've got it, then chances are you're going to be a good crisis clinician.”

Pittenger said the Intensive Stabilization Program — where clinicians and therapists work with people in person and over the phone four times a day for a three- to 10-day period — keeps her motivated.

“You can see a physical change in somebody. They look like a completely different person,” Pittenger said. “Watching that progression … the cloud of depression is lifting, the anxiety is stabilizing, it's a beautiful process to watch and to be able to walk beside somebody for that period of time is an honor.”

Despite the exhaustion and constantly interrupted sleep, Pittenger and the other crisis clinicians are still encouraging people to reach out.

“When there's a connection, there's accountability,” Pittenger said. “And if you're connected with somebody, … you can express how you're feeling. Because, let's face it, everybody's struggling these last couple of years. Nobody's free of struggle.”

Clinicians say people who are hurting and don’t know where else to turn should never hesitate to call the center.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.