The Aspen Education Foundation, a nonprofit that acts as a financial partner to the Aspen School District, announced that it is officially adding mental health to its list of primary support initiatives.
In the immediate term, that means funding the hiring of a second counselor at Aspen Middle School, AEF executive director Cynthia Chase explained.
“When I sat down with [interim Superintendent] Tom Heald about this coming year, we had a lot of conversation about the mental health focus in our school system and the need for counselors,” she said, adding that the most immediate need is at the middle school. “There should be one counselor for every 250 students. We have 486 students and one counselor. AEF made a commitment to bring in another counselor right away.”
The district will handle the hiring logistics, she continued, but AEF will ensure the position’s stability.
“We take our directive from the district. We work hand in hand with them, and that’s how we come up with what we fund,” Chase said. “I know the mental health [initiative] is a solid moving forward. It’s not like we would fund a counselor this year and not next year. When we take on a need, we take it on knowing that’s what we’re funding moving forward for as long as there’s a need.”
Although Heald himself was not immediately available for comment, “I know Tom Heald is passionate about mental health and taking the right steps in getting this done,” Chase said.
In addition to hiring a second middle school counselor, AEF also supports Aspen Family Connections, a resource center headquartered at the Aspen High School campus. In addition to the popular education and parenting workshops the organization sponsors, Aspen Family Connections also serves as a hub for individuals and families to find solutions to their everyday struggles — which often center around mental health.
Aspen Family Connections executive director Katherine Sand views the mental health conversation as a necessary one, albeit sometimes esoteric.
“It’s a complex thing to articulate, especially since it’s so emotive. Mental health, it’s a worrying and concerning thing for many people,” she said. “It relates to behavior, and I think it relates to children’s and family’s connectedness with the community. So that’s what Aspen Family Connections was created to do: connect people to the many community resources that exist here.”
The families that utilize Aspen Family Connections may be struggling with any number of scenarios, from financial stress to a child’s feeling socially isolated. And while several members of Sand’s staff are trained therapists and counselors, that’s the not the capacity in which they’re working, she emphasized.
“It’s a really privileged position to be in, to sit down with people who are going through different things and just say, ‘What is out there to help you, and how can we connect you to it nice and quickly?’” she said. “We have this very broad view, and we try to help everyone find whatever they need wherever they are.”
Regardless of the particular issue at hand, though, Sand thinks almost anything can come back to mental health.
“Mental health in a way is shorthand. It’s a shorthand for mental wellbeing or just our wellbeing,” she said. “Family situations, health situations, work. All kinds of things ripple through our families and then into this community.”
One of the more concrete solutions toward improving the collective mental health of the area, both Sand and Chase agree, comes back to housing.
“I truly feel that housing and the cost of living in this area play very strongly into what makes life difficult here,” Sand said. “If I had a magic wand, it would be that people could live here more easily.”
Chase hopes that AEF can ultimately play a role in alleviating the housing burden. Representatives from the Aspen Education Association have asserted that the starting salary for teachers should be raised to $50,000, up from $43,000, and compensation and housing have been focal points in Board of Education candidate forums leading up to the Nov. 5 election, and it will likely come into any recruiting conversation for a new counselor at the middle school.
“We have another, bigger picture part of our board, which is looking at how do we help with this housing program problem. We know in a bigger picture, we need our teachers to be paid more and for them to have access to housing,” she said. “Really, that’s the most supportive way we can be at our schools. If we can free up money in the district budget, that can go to our teachers.”
Since its founding in 1991, AEF has contributed more than $11 million to fund 14 school programs and 10 staff positions within the Aspen School District, according to its website.