The last week has been a somber reminder that mental health issues are perhaps the biggest threat to locals’ well-being in this valley.
We don’t know what drove Jeff Walker, a longtime local whose funeral drew more than 300 people, to his final act, taking his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in an out-of-bounds area off of Aspen Highlands. Whatever it was, the event is a tragedy of incredible proportions. It is so sad to think that someone would get to a point where they see suicide as their only way out. There have been countless locals who taken their own lives; we lost another longtime local last month. We wish we could turn back time and reach out to each and every one of them.
The fact of the matter is that mental health and depression lurk beneath the surface here, as much or more than anywhere else. The statistics lay it bare: Pitkin County has one of the nation’s highest suicide rates. You could call some of the issues structural: the high cost of living, increasing stratification of local society, dangerous rates of drug and alcohol abuse and a sense of isolation in a transient community are just a few. The resort-town environment might also push some to put on a happy face and keep the party going when they are having problems.
There is no problem that can’t be solved, whether it be financial pressures, loneliness or not being satisfied with how life has turned out. We must also remember that we prop each other up in this beautiful place.
There are no easy answers. Perhaps we need to all slow down a bit and pay closer attention to what is going on with our families and loved ones, and make clear to them how important they are to us.
Fortunately, awareness of the Aspen area’s issues with depression and suicide seems to be on the increase in the last few years. In 2009, a University of Colorado team published a report that focused on Pitkin County’s mental health issues, which led to the creation of the Aspen Hope Center. The 24-hour service allows anyone to call 970 925-5858 and be connected with people who are trained in responding to mental health crises. We imagine that the Hope Center has extended a life line to many who are in need.
Our hope is that we all can be more willing to open up about our struggles, and also be those caring people who are willing to listen. Help is out there, and it may be just a phone call away.
The message must be spread communitywide that it’s OK to get help, and know where help is available. The Aspen Counseling Center is a resource where people of all ages, incomes and abilities can find support and affordable treatment. It’s important that all people have access to treatment and services because there is a great deal of knowledge about how to identify, heal, and prevent mental health conditions. Recovery and empowerment are the keys to success, and as a community we can empower recovery through education, awareness and support.
The only positive take-away from this latest tragedy is that it showed once again how much this community cares about one other. It was seen during the 11-day search for Walker and again when people came together at his memorial service. We must celebrate one another every day, not just when someone is gone. We should be gathering together as a community in celebration, not grieving the loss of someone we wish had felt safe enough among us to be open about his or her problems.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Jeff Walker, who undoubtedly are struggling with unanswerable questions right now.