‘Aspen Together’ event at the Wheeler sparks community conversation

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Printed in The Aspen Times, Novemeber 30, 2021

Picture a street lined with houses: on one end, the home of someone struggling with their mental health; on the other, the “house of suicide,” the Aspen comedian and writer Miller Ford suggested during a community mental health panel at the Wheeler Opera House Monday night.

But between those houses could be a whole lot of others that represent support systems and community resources, said Ford, who has been in recovery from substance use for the past five years. He said he entered a “downward spiral” and contemplated suicide after his name made national headlines when he was arrested in 2015 and an officer reported that Ford said, “Of course it’s cocaine up my nose, it’s Aspen.”

“I didn’t want to go into that last house (that represents suicide) — I really felt like I did, but there was something about those other houses that we can, as a community … start to build,” Ford said. ”At the basis of it was that something helped me ask for help. Now, I don’t necessarily know what it is, but I know it’s good, and I, I’m happy to be here today talking about it because no one is alone when it comes to these things. Not a single person who’s suffering through a mental illness or addiction is the first one to do it.”

Monday night’s gathering, dubbed “Aspen Together,” was in a way one of those houses lining the street, organized by the city in partnership with a handful of local mental health advocacy and resource groups with the intent of fostering a community conversation around mental health and providing training on suicide prevention.

Miller joined Chelsea Carnoali, a mental health analyst with Pitkin County Public Health, and Angilina Taylor, the executive director of the mental health advocacy nonprofit Aspen Strong, on the panel led by the Rev. Jerry Herships of Aspen Community Church. Mind Springs Health’s Kayla Bailey and Megan Baker led a presentation on suicide prevention before the panel.

Some local electeds felt there was an urgent need for such programming around the start of the ski season after multiple suicides and mental health-related incidents this fall.

About four or five dozen people attended Monday night’s event — not exactly a full house in the 500-seat theater, a few of the speakers observed, but still a worthwhile showing for an event that Aspen Mayor Torre said he sees as a “first step” toward more community mental health conversations.

“This is that ripple effect,” Torre said by way of introduction to the night’s programming. “We’re raising awareness, we’re having this conversation in our community, we’re unmuting this conversation.”

Equipping a community with the tools to prevent suicide calls for training and skills, sure, but also a “culture shift,” said Bailey, the outpatient program director for the Aspen branch of Mind Springs Health.

At the heart of that culture shift is asking questions: not just “How are you?” but “How are you, really?” So too is answering those questions honestly, and getting comfortable with talking — and listening — when things aren’t going fine or OK.

But it also requires a bit of reading between the lines and identifying indicators of suicidal thought in those who might say they’re all right when really they’re not, Carnoali said during the panel. Intervening with an offer of pizza or a cup of coffee can make a difference.

“You’re pulling them out of that thought loop where they’re thinking, like, that’s the only option right now is for me to make this decision, and giving them another choice, another place to go, another another thing to think about to help them, to help keep them here,” Carnoali said.

Symptoms of suicidal thought can look like hopelessness, anxiety, giving things away, crying, isolation, psychosis, lethargy, a change in personality or a sudden improvement in mood that comes with the relief some feel once they’ve reached that final point, according the presentation by Bailey and Baker.

Then comes asking point-blank: “Are you thinking of killing yourself? And are you thinking of suicide?”

If the answer is yes, calling a crisis line is always a viable option (see sidebar). You can also ask a person in crisis how they can keep themselves safe, contact support systems, “disable the plan” by removing lethal objects, ask about future plans and support the person with their past survival skills — the tools they’ve used in the past to help get through mental health crises.

“What can we do? (That) is the billion dollar question. … There’s no wrong answer here except for nothing, right?” Bailey said. “The worst thing we can do is nothing, but even just holding space for somebody, giving them being there with them being present can be helpful in these scenarios.”


Mental Health Crisis and Suicide Prevention hotlines

If you or someone you know is in crisis or considering suicide, there are 24/7 hotlines locally and nationally.

Aspen Hope Center: Call 970-925-5858.

Colorado Crisis Services: Call 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.

Mind Springs Health: Call 970-201-4299 to reach the assessment for admissions team.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255.