Mental health organization fills gaps in service in rural Roaring Fork Valley

May 27, 2015

The Aspen Hope Center celebrates five years in June. Since it opened, it has helped hundreds with mental health and substance abuse services.
Credit Facebook/Aspen Hope Center

The Aspen Hope Center turns five on June 1st. The nonprofit serves those in emotional crisis with most clients either dealing with mental health problems or substance abuse. Last year, the organization made headlines as it worked to tackle the problem of suicide after a cluster of deaths happened in a matter of days. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

The organization started in 2010 after a study showed the Roaring Fork Valley needed more mental health services. Aspen resident Joe Disalvo already knew that.

"Five years ago I had a friend who was in trouble," he says. "And, I was having trouble finding help for him."

Disalvo, who serves as the sheriff of Pitkin County, says he reached out to the Hope Center, which was in its infancy.

"I called the Hope Center blindly and Michelle and another girl showed up, which was unfamiliar to me when dealing with mental health," he says.

He’s referring to Michelle Muething, the Hope Center’s director. He was surprised with the organization’s quick, personal response after previous experiences had him dealing with clinicians on the phone or waiting hours for someone to show up.

"My friend in crisis had two people with him to talk about his issues within less than an hour. And that was five years ago, as the Hope Center was just starting to crawl."

A report by the group Advancing Colorado’s Mental Health Care shows one in three Coloradans are in need of mental health care or treatment of substance abuse. One in twelve are in severe need of mental health care. Michelle Muething with the Hope Center:

"If you look across the country, the term ‘accessing mental health’ are buzz words. Colorado in 2010 was 50 out of 50 in the country for the number of inpatient beds that were available."

That ranking hasn’t improved much. So, the Hope Center created what’s called an IOP or Individual Intensive Outpatient Program that has served more than 140 people. It is rigorous accountability for those seeking help with multiple daily check-ins and therapy.

The organization has also put a staffer in the schools. Andrea Pazdera is a clinician and therapist based at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. This school year 98 kids, or 35 percent of the student body, have come to her seeking help.

"It can be any number of things - family illness, family struggle, parental incarceration, struggles around documentation, stress, anxiety and depression," Pazdera says.

She has noticed a troubling trend.

"Substance use seems to be increasing, particularly marijuana use. That can have particularly deleterious effects for children who are already at risk or are vulnerable to severe or persistent mental illness."

Suicide is another area of focus for the Hope Center. Colorado ranks sixth in the nation for suicides. Pitkin County has experienced hardship in this area. Again, Michelle Muething:

"In 2014 we saw four suicides in ten days, and a lot of people came to the surface at the Hope Center."

The Hope Center’s crisis line was busy and the organization launched a campaign aimed at getting people to talk about suicide, and find help. The center has trained 3000 people in suicide prevention.

"We trained 722 people just last year, and 159 thus far in 2015. We’ve also trained businesses like AVSC, Alpine Bank, Aspen Skiing Company, law enforcement and fire departments."

While the number of suicides varies from year to year and hasn’t consistently gone down since the Hope Center opened, the organization does point to an increasing number of welfare checks. More people are calling law enforcement about friends and family they fear may be in trouble.

The majority of the Hope Center’s work happens in Pitkin and Garfield counties.