Suicide data

The most recent suicide data available for Colorado is from 2017, when the state recorded the highest level of deaths by suicide.

Some of the area’s biggest organizations have partnered to address the mental health needs of the community.

Pitkin County, the Aspen School District, Aspen Valley Hospital, the city of Aspen, Aspen Skiing Co. and the Aspen Community Foundation are working together to develop a strategic vision and master plan to address mental health locally. As one of the final steps of that process, a public survey is available online through the end of the week. (See pitkincountyconnect.com/community-wellbeing-survey.)

Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann said the feedback gathered will help the groups take on one of the valley’s most complex issues.

“Everybody has a person, if not themselves, that is probably struggling in some way, so we all feel it on a very visceral and personal level,” Koenemann said. “The root causes are so complex, and I think as a nation and as a human species we are not that advanced in addressing the complexity of these issues.”

Working with a facilitator, the partners will design a master strategic vision to prioritize the community’s most pressing needs and lay out a path of improvements to address them.

“Having the [partners] in the room came from this feeling of ‘oh my gosh the system just isn’t working,’ and how can we disrupt the system?” Koenemann said.

Along with the survey, a series of focus groups in English and Spanish have been scheduled to get a sense of what services are working in the valley and what services are lacking.

“We felt like we have not had an opportunity to hear full community voice, to really inform us as to what is working really well and what are some challenges and gaps,” Koenemann said. “This is really the opportunity to capture the widest voice, so we hope that we hear things that we haven’t heard before, and that we do see trends.”

The anonymous online survey also is available in English and Spanish. A blurb at the top of the page lays out the purpose of the public outreach.

“We want to learn what allows you and your community to be healthy and happy and what supports would be helpful when life gets challenging,” it states.

The survey asks respondents to identify some of the things in the valley that most positively influence their mental well-being. It also asks if they’ve employed mindfulness training or coping strategies into their lives, and to offer reflections on times they or others have tried to access local mental health services.

For those who have interacted with local agencies, the survey includes questions like, “If you have been a caregiver to a person with mental health challenges, what did you need that you did not get from mental health professionals or the mental health care system overall?”

Koenemann identified follow-up and follow-through as the areas that could use improvement within the network of care.

“Something we hear a lot [is], ‘I don’t even know where to start,’ and then, ‘I don’t know what to do afterwards,’” she said. “I hear those stories all the time. They are already facing a mental health challenge and then we are expecting them to navigate this very complex system.”

Koenemann said data surrounding mental health tends to lag behind reality. Her department looks at the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey that is presented every two years to youths. In Pitkin County, students reported vaping at a rate three times higher than the state average.

“Those are the kinds of indicators that I think, ‘We are already way behind the eight ball on this.’ And that’s just one tiny indicator on substance use,” she said. 

The state’s data also is a year behind. Last November, the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention released its report for 2017, a record-breaking year for suicide deaths in the state, with 1,175 recorded, or 20.2 people per 100,000 residents. Rates are rising nationwide as well, with 2018 being the highest year for suicide in 49 states.

“It’s kind of a crisis; the situation isn’t getting better across the nation,” Koenemann said.

As the stakeholders work to map out a way to address the issue locally, she said the most important thing is to hear directly from community members about what improvements can be made. 

But, she said, resources already exist to help strengthen the place so many love to call home.

“(We want to know) what does the community think and what are their concerns,” Koenemann said. “And what are the assets too? What are the strengths of this community because we have tons of those as well.”

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.