The Other Side of Paradise
Imagine being trapped in a winter storm cloud: Engulfed by blinding fog, disorienting wind, and bone-chilling sleet, you might not even realize where you are or how you got there until, somehow, you break on through. It hurts like hell, and the storm still swirls outside, but at least the imminent danger of being swept away—or worse—has dissipated. This is your brain on crisis.
Roaring Fork Valley resident Christie Henderson experienced the equivalent of such a storm for three bedridden months in 2008, which she describes as a period of darkness, pain, and confusion. We meet on a brisk November afternoon at a Basalt park to watch Henderson’s two beloved rescue dogs scramble over brown, brittle grass. As daylight fades, Henderson keeps wrapping a white cardigan sweater tightly around herself as if in subtle self-embrace. It’s a small comfort, I sense, while she shares the story of how the Aspen Hope Center, quite literally, helped save her life.
Shepherding individuals away from the ledge of disaster is the nonprofit’s core mission. Launched eight years ago through the then-existent Aspen Valley Medical Foundation with the help of cofounder Sandy Iglehart—a hospital volunteer when her daughter, Courtney, killed herself in 2009—the Hope Center specializes in crisis management.
As the only private crisis agency in the state (and, remarkably, one of just three in the country), the Hope Center is able to triage tricky situations in ways that state- or government-funded mental health providers—where system clinicians wear many hats and often work through a centralized operating hub—cannot.
“Mental health is the number-one public health issue,” says Iglehart, whose daughter had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “Our society, we’ve got a handle on cancer and diabetes. Mental wellness should be our goal.”
The details of Henderson’s life tell a story all too familiar to many in our valley: Depression began in high school. Drugs and alcohol numbed those feelings and masked her sadness, if briefly, through college. After graduation, Henderson moved here and broke into the ultra-competitive Aspen real-estate market; following another depressive episode in 2007, she quit her job, moved in with her parents in New Hampshire, and sought treatment.
Suicide was a recurring daydream. “I was looking it up,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Like, oh, the easiest is pills or car exhaust.”
Sitting outside on the front lawn with her father one day, Henderson found herself ripping up blades of grass and uttering the words, “I want to kill myself. I don’t want to be here.”
“And I have the most loving family,” she continues. Henderson’s parents escorted her to therapy appointments and monitored medications she had taken intermittently for years, but the side effects were debilitating. She wanted out. Finally, off meds and feeling stable again, she decided to start fresh back in Colorado come fall 2009.
Within three years, however, the stress of managing a high-pressure career in real estate and murky moods became unmanageable once again. Henderson returned east for a few months in the spring of 2012. It was then that her best friend in Aspen requested a welfare check, a call Henderson says was “vital to me being here today.”
When Henderson returned in June, another friend picked her up from the Aspen airport; concerned, she called the Aspen Hope Center on the drive home. Executive Director Michelle Muething met with Henderson right away.
Muething and the center’s six full-time crisis clinicians liken themselves to emergency first responders: When a call comes in, a clinician on the clock is available immediately for in-person support. They assess risk, offer counseling, and connect individuals with appropriate community resources. Crisis mitigation is always free; ongoing therapy is available on a sliding scale, with scholarships when needed. (Independently funded, the Hope Center relies on donations, income from contracts with various local agencies, and grants.) Muething met regularly with Henderson. “It was her being there, getting me through the week and focusing on what was helpful and what wasn’t,” Henderson says. “I didn’t feel I was being judged. Her counseling was a comfort and guidance versus that feeling with so many doctors looking you up and down and handing you a pill. She was there, consistently. And that’s what gave me hope. Looking back, it’s mind-blowing. It’s a miracle I’m alive.”
In Aspen, wealth, sunshine, and the snarky slogan “My Life Is Better Than Your Vacation” hides untold hurt. Pitkin County’s suicide rate averaged 22.6 per 100,000 people in 2013–2015, above the state average of 19.1, according to Mental Health Colorado. The resort atmosphere, in particular, can make it challenging to admit unhappiness and reach out for assistance when dealing with life’s inevitable ups and downs. For those who manage to surpass the stigma of acknowledging a need for help—exacerbated by small-town hyperawareness—the Hope Center is just a phone call away. When James Harvey dialed the Aspen Hope Center on the recommendation of a doctor friend in 2015, he didn’t realize he was in crisis mode. He was just feeling vulnerable and looking for someone to talk to, he recalls. The Arizona native had relocated to Snowmass Village in May 2013 to pursue a dream of living in the Rocky Mountains, and life was good—snowboarding and building jumps for the X Games terrain park by day; working in a swank hotel restaurant by night—until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Not only did a wicked leg injury that required surgery sideline him from both jobs, it led to acute infection and hospitalization. There he rekindled a long-lost bad romance—with pain pills. Hurting over a recent breakup and the resurfacing of suppressed childhood trauma, Harvey hit an all-time low. “Everything came crashing down,” he says. “I was lost, depressed, and addicted.”
Despite craving the warm opiate haze familiar to him as a teenager, Harvey knew better than to slip further down that slope as he approached age 30. “I thought, I’m in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I’m doing one of the darkest, dirtiest things ever,” he says. “I don’t want to be known for this.”
He left a voicemail at the Hope Center, inquiring about therapy.
“‘I’ll meet you there right now,’ he recalls the clinician saying when she called back minutes later. “She made it a point to leave whatever she was doing to see me.”
Harvey spoke to a few different counselors at the Hope Center office in Basalt, and they helped him discern past unhealthy patterns. But he found motivation for actionable change in Patti Present, a Hope Center therapist with a background as a military family counselor.
“I’ve been coddled my whole life,” Harvey says. “[Previous] therapists were a shoulder to lean on. Patti was the first one to say, ‘No, you need to take control. I’m not gonna sit here and hold your hand. Regroup and get your shit together.’”
He continued to meet with Present periodically over the next couple of years, including when a childhood friend fatally overdosed in Carbondale a year and a half later. Her ending message ultimately nudged Harvey’s thoughts of self-harm toward positive objectives.
“A suicidal urge is a strong message: Your soul telling you that the life being lived needs to die,” he says. “It’s not a call to destroy the body.”
Sitting together at Jour de Fête during peak breakfast hour, I’m stunned. Harvey is the guy—now assistant general manager at a popular restaurant in town—who is always grinning. He’s perennially first in line at the Aspen Mountain Gondola on opening day. And he’s just told me that before finding the Hope Center, he considered hanging himself, maybe atop a mountain, where nobody would find him.
“Patti helped me change my mind frame,” says Harvey, adding that she reminded him to consider best-case scenarios. “She taught me how to take a step back, take a couple of breaths, not react on impulse. It wasn’t her that got me off the pain pills; it was seeing everyone around me crash and leave town. Addiction is a real thing, and I realized that I couldn’t let that get the best of me.”
He committed to a more healthful lifestyle: exercising, eating well, working toward personal goals, and surrounding himself with happy, productive people. Today, if he meets with Present, it’s only to show her how far he’s come.
“She’s there when I need her,” he says. “Even though everything is going well for me, I still need to check in.”
The Hope Center’s scope is not limited to mental illness or suicide, however. As many know, crisis often occurs as individuals struggle to cope with loss, trauma, or simply life not panning out as expected.
Candice Claire Oksenhorn sought out the Hope Center amid a period of chronic family stress in December 2012. Mostly she worried how her 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, was coping. “I needed someone to help me navigate through some difficult conversations,” Oksenhorn says, “as a sounding board.”
Muething met the longtime Aspenite at the Hope Center on a Saturday. They hashed out issues for hours. “I felt an immediate trust,” recalls Oksenhorn, who continued the discussions over the next year and a half, during a separation from her husband, Stewart. “She wasn’t trying to fix anything for me, but help me focus on some tools and phrasing to get through it. I needed perspective; I wanted my daughter to have support.”
That was just the beginning. Oksenhorn, a certified meditation teacher and Ayurvedic lifestyle coach, compares the two-and-a-half years that followed to walking barefoot over a bed of burning coals: losing her father abruptly to leukemia in 2013; losing Stewart, to suicide in 2014; and Olivia undergoing major surgery.
Oksenhorn presents a selfie taken shortly after Stewart’s death, and the effects of crisis are clear: a peeling, red rash mottles her chin and cheeks.
“This was why I needed the Hope Center,” she says. “Navigating my daughter into high school as a single parent in PTSD—who didn’t have a chance to grieve her father’s death before her husband’s death—it was too much shock. I was burning from the inside out.”
Oksenhorn credits the Hope Center with helping her to “get grounded on being realistic.” Thanks to Muething’s constant guidance all along—which included meeting Olivia at her middle school during lunch to avoid disrupting after-school activities—both mother and daughter learned to deal with challenges head-on and build resilience.
“If you call in the middle of the night, there is always someone there,” says Olivia, now a college freshman. “Whenever I needed them—and still, I guess, if I need them—there will always be someone there. I wish more people knew about it.”
Word is spreading, as communities pay more attention to mental health as a component of physical well-being. Since speaking out about her own issues after a close friend’s suicide in 2014, Henderson, who recently became a Hope Center outreach coordinator, believes that others are listening—and taking action.
“I got a text: ‘My daughter is struggling, who should I call?’” she says. “I’ve realized so many people don’t know who we are. So many people are hurting. Sharing my story has made people come forward.”
Since crisis stabilization is the focus, the Hope Center’s response to a situation is immediate. Each crisis clinician fills three 24-hour shifts per week, including office hours, during which time he or she answers calls, meets with clients (some 760 visit the office annually, according to Iglehart), or visits the scene of an accident or tragedy as quickly as possible. “Law enforcement has their job, as do medics, the coroner, investigators,” Muething says. “We can be outside the fishbowl, seeing it all and knowing where to offer support and help.” That might mean shepherding bystanders off the tarmac after a fiery plane crash, acting as a liaison to the medical examiner when a loved one wants to see the body, or ordering food for the family and planning funeral arrangements for someone who dies suddenly at home.
Concerning five hiker deaths on Capitol Peak in 2017 (the cruelest year in modern history), Hope Center staff was with every family for days, weeks, sometimes months later. They also helped law enforcement and the all-volunteer Mountain Rescue Aspen crew assess their own emotional well-being. “They’re not left alone because the lights and sirens go away and the crisis is over,” Muething says. “It’s not over, emotionally, for a very long time.”
The Hope Center prides itself on keeping those seeking help out of the hospital—using it only as a last—not first—resort, which differs from many other mental health responder protocols. As a result, the center relies on other local organizations to help with continued necessary outreach. “We’re not a one-stop shop,” explains Muething, who refers clients to outside specialists when appropriate, such as Response for sexual assault and domestic violence trauma, Aspen City of Wellbeing for yoga and meditation tools, and Pathfinders for grief support.
“It takes a village,” says Allison Daily, executive director of Pathfinders. In November, staff from Pathfinders and the Hope Center, along with private practice therapists, rushed to Basalt High School in the wake of 15-year-old freshman Patrick Palardy’s suicide. “These kids need follow-up,” Daily explains. “They need someone to say, ‘I’ve got your back, and here are some tools to process your grief.’”
Kristin Koehler is forever grateful that Muething gave her such tools—ways to grieve actively that included writing exercises and visualization—after losing her only child to SIDS. Muething asked Koehler to imagine standing in a wheat field, tall stalks swaying way overhead. “‘You don’t know where you’re going, but you know that there is a road,’” Koehler recalls her saying. “‘Feel the breeze, hear the sound of the wheat, and be OK with where you are.’ We worked together for several months. I know this valley and how you can get lost in it. We all need support.”
Shifting the cycle of crisis is imperative. After the Basalt incident, Hope Center clinicians completed a whopping 42 risk assessments in six days “because kids were starting to talk about their own darkness and hopelessness,” Muething says.
“If Patrick had [known of] someplace to go and say, ‘I’m hurting, and I don’t wanna tell my mom,’ the Hope Center could say, ‘We got this,’” says the teen’s mother, Temple Glassier, vocal in the weeks since her son’s death. Now painfully aware of the nonprofit, Glassier is fundraising via GoFundMe to help the Hope Center develop a year-round curriculum in schools.
“The Hope Center has given me a purpose and a reason to look forward and move on,” Glassier says. “They encouraged me to stay above the stigma.”
The Hope Center’s innovative model has been so successful that other rural communities in Colorado are looking to emulate it. In November 2017, Eagle County voters approved a ballot measure that will funnel up to $1.2 million of the marijuana tax toward mental health and substance abuse programs. Eagle County Director of Public Health and Environment Chris Lindley hopes to build a crisis stabilization unit in the county’s section of the Roaring Fork Valley. As of December 2017, suicides in Eagle County had spiked far above the national average: 16 confirmed, one unconfirmed—six more in a single year than has ever been recorded. Lindley calls it “a massive crisis.”
“It’s two times our normal rate,” he adds. “We need local resources where people in need can immediately plug in and get stabilized quickly.”
Aspen Skiing Company is on board with shifting the culture. This fall, the organization’s Caring for Community Fund awarded a $4,000 grant to the Hope Center to help install a dedicated mental health clinician within the Roaring Fork School District.
“It was a nearly unanimous vote,” says board member Henrietta Ransom Oliver. “As a company, we promote a humanistic ideal and feel strongly that we need to walk the talk by supporting nonprofits that provide much-needed mental health services.” Aspen Strong, Pathfinders, and Response also received assistance from the fund.
Still, the Hope Center experienced a setback of its own recently, after Pitkin County decided to consolidate and streamline mental health services, particularly crisis response. Reluctant to merge systems and eliminate choice for community members, the Hope Center decided not to participate in the request for proposals process.
“We would have had to change the philosophy of what we believe is best to serve the community and give up things that we provide,” says Muething, touting a help hotline run by a local response team as one example. Instead, a county contract was awarded to Western Slope provider Mind Springs Health, and the Hope Center lost $60,000 in annual funding from Aspen Valley Hospital and the City of Aspen. Ever optimistic, Muething believes that the organization can offset the shortfall, in part by forging new contracts.
Moving forward, Iglehart stresses the importance of preventative wellness awareness. Her latest vision: for the Hope Center to expand its educational outreach in middle schools. “We’ve provided almost every kid in the Basalt, Roaring Fork, and Aspen high schools with suicide prevention training,” she says. “We need to design a program appropriate for lower schools targeting education with social media and how dangerous it can be.” (That said, groups such as the Buddy Program and YouthZone are current beneficiaries of Hope Center programming.)
Meanwhile, adult support groups (including the Life Line Group for family and friends affected by suicide) are ongoing; public forums are held annually; and peer counseling and more formal partnerships are in the works. “We’re giving people the hope,” Iglehart says, “to know that the next day, it could all look different.”
Patient-turned-Hope Center Outreach Coordinator Henderson, for one, is on a mission to share that belief. “It doesn’t get better, but it gets easier,” she says. “I give hope, and that helps me heal. We all heal by hearing other people talk. That’s how it’s done: voices, stories. It’s about embracing [our struggles], getting together, and laughing. We’re all crazy.”
ASPEN HOPE CENTER
24/7 Hopeline: 970-925-5858
Other Organizations in the Roaring Fork Valley that assist those in crisis include:
With a mission of providing “mental hygiene” to Roaring Fork Valley residents, the nonprofit foundation, founded in 2014, provides a centralized community for resources and awareness initiatives. In addition to offering online the nationally recognized Screening for Mental Health questionnaire, which encourages everyone to “get a check-up from the neck up,” Aspen Strong offers a therapy provider directory and crisis-support recommendations. aspenstrong.org
Mind Springs Health
With 13 locations throughout Colorado’s Western Slope and a dedicated psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction, Mind Springs Health operates two local outpatient offices in Aspen and Glenwood Springs, offering counseling and addiction treatment for children, teens, adults, and seniors. 24/7 crisis hotline: 888-207-4004; mindspringshealth.org
NAMI Roaring Fork Valley
The local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness—a leading voice in mental health since 1979—is based in Glenwood Springs and offers caregiver training, family support groups, and educational seminars. 24/7 HelpLine: 800-950-6264; nami.org
Those grappling with cancer or chronic illness—whether patients, caregivers, or family members—turn to this nonprofit support program, which focuses on the psychosocial and spiritual issues that arise with a diagnosis. Built around the Seven Pillars of Personal Strength, an evidence-based curriculum of coping strategies, the Aspen-based program serves residents of Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle, and Mesa counties at all stages of treatment. pathfindersforcancer.org
Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault have turned to Response since 1983 for a safe and confidential refuge and resource. From crisis intervention and community awareness to court services and emergency shelter, it’s the only local nonprofit that offers free-of-charge, bilingual services dedicated to these issues. Recently, Response launched a training program for local bartenders and servers to recognize potential sexual assaults. 24/7 crisis hotline: 970-925-7233; responsehelps.org