Join us at the Mental Fitness Fair on September 23rd!

By Alycin Bektesh
Article from Aspen Daily News. Jan 27, 2021
Used with permission from the Aspen Daily News.

The community is invited to tune in to a virtual event this evening addressing the behavioral health issues that have arisen from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Aspen Valley Hospital and Aspen Strong will co-host “Failure to Launch?” — which will feature panelists who have themselves gone through trauma or addiction, as well as mental health and employment resources experts.

“We wanted to bring a broad topic base, giving the community an opportunity to discuss a variety of issues,” said Angilina Taylor, interim director of Aspen Strong.

The panel will comprise staff and board members from the two organizations, alongside behavioral health specialist Michelle Miscione, human resources coordinator Chelsie Brehm, trauma survivor Andy Godfrey and addictions counselor Karin Bannerot.

“[COVID] has brought about some bad habits for a lot of us,” Taylor said, adding that the talk will “provide some insights into coping and recalibrating your addictions and dealing with them in a healthier way.”

For those who have been struggling with anxiety or depression on top of employment stressors through the pandemic, there is a portion of the evening focused on how to vocalize those issues in the workplace.

“A lot of people are experiencing a lot of mental health issues due to COVID and  having challenges talking to their employers about their mental health,” Taylor said.

 The Zoom-based event will further highlight avenues for people to seek out counseling or support groups, as well as COVID-specific information such as vaccine and testing resources.

“We will touch on a lot of the topics that people are dealing with right now and then let the community know that the resources are out there — and what those resources are,” Taylor said.

Michelle Miscione, behavioral health specialist at Aspen Valley Hospital Primary Care, has been seeing patients throughout the year as they deal with the challenges of the pandemic. She said she has seen a definitive increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms, which can present as fear and isolation, as well as passive suicidal thoughts.

“It’s not an intent to harm oneself, but the idea of ‘What’s the point; what’s the purpose of life if I can’t participate in it?’” Miscione described.

The abrupt change of lifestyle necessitated by public health orders in response to COVID-19 has had a collective effect on the behavioral health of the community.

“With most of my clients who have not really experienced anxiety or depression to this extreme, the work is really around normalizing those symptoms and confirming that yeah, of course you’re having these increased symptoms because all of your go-tos have been stripped away,” she continued.

The public discussion addresses the reality that everyone has struggled during the year, and the increased shutdown and rise in viral spread is taxing on an already weary population. Organizers’ aim is that by bringing attention to a sort of shared experience, even virtually, participants may find some solace.

“The open forum brings mental health issues to light for people to not feel as alone or private in their experience,” Miscione said. “This is actually something that other people are living with, and then there’s that sharing-of-information strategy that can help you live through the experience a little less painfully.”

She says she has seen health take a back seat for many of her clients as they balance the multiple punches of working remotely, homeschooling, dealing with sickness or loss of loved ones and the political landscape of the last year.

“There is a higher incidence of alcohol use; higher incidence of majirujana use; over eating; under exercising. And I really don’t blame anybody. In some ways, we are just doing the best we can,” she said.

Tonight’s discussion, live via Zoom from 7 to 8 p.m., will include techniques for addressing some of the rising stresses of the pandemic.

“What I try to do in my practice is at least modify those behaviors, or ask the client, ‘What’s one thing you could introduce that might help you feel better about yourself?’” Miscione said.

The talk will also offer healing for trauma survivors, a term the layperson may not associate with the events of the pandemic.

“Maybe trauma feels like a big word and maybe something we don’t want to identify with, but it actually is traumatic — and that is OK,” Taylor said.

And while it’s hard to find silver linings in the ongoing struggles associated with COVID-19, she said the communal trauma allows the topic of mental health to be brought from the shadows.

“One of the interesting things about COVID is that we are having this universal experience — before, if you were having an issue, it was just your own issue,” she said. “Yes this is traumatic, yes this has been intense for all of us and it makes it easier to talk about the things that are going on because we are kind of all going through it at the same time.”

 Stronger together

Aspen Strong has built a one-stop shop page on its website in partnership with health care providers, nonprofits and local governments. Last week, the city of Aspen announced an awareness campaign stressing the myriad support options available throughout the valley. Dubbed the “We are here for you” campaign, Taylor said it has already brought more people to the Aspen Strong website who are seeking resources or engaging in the self assessment tools.

“It is stigmatized to say, ‘I need a therapist,’ but I believe we could all benefit from regular therapy, just like we can benefit from physical exercise,” Taylor said.

The Mental Health Coordination Team was developed early on in the public health shutdown, in acknowledgement of the vulnerable community members already present in the valley.

“We do know that we have a very high suicide rate in Pitkin County and the valley in general, so it was an effort in mitigating that,” Taylor said.

Miscione said that those who live alone are experiencing particular troubles right now, as the public health order requires people to avoid all social interactions outside their immediate households. She said for those who are struggling with isolation, support groups have helped her clients connect.

“It was so life affirming and satisfying [to find a] group going through similar feelings and experiences. Just the power in numbers of coming together with like-minded people has been vital,” Miscione said.

The “We are here for you” campaign has been translated into Spanish to assist in getting resources to another vulnerable population that has been disproportionately hit by COVID-19.

‘It’s a community that doesn’t necessarily identify with mental health — that’s not part of their cultural narrative,” Taylor said of Spanish-speaking communities.

The public can submit questions for the panel ahead of tonight’s talk to Taylor via [email protected]. She said the panelists all have personal stories to share along with their professional expertise, and the conversation should provide something for everyone.

“It should be super engaging and interesting and a diverse panel, so whatever little issue you are dealing with, I think a lot of people could get a lot from it,” Taylor said.

While acknowledging the ongoing taxation the pandemic has brought locally and worldwide, Miscione said that she has also seen success stories in her role as a behavioral therapist for those who have sought help to manage their struggles.

“A lot of people have gotten through this year really beautifully, given all of the setbacks,” she said. “It really strikes me how resilient people are.”

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @alycinwonder.