Building Hope Summit County makes mental health its mission | SummitDaily.com

Building Hope Summit County makes mental health its mission

Dozens of representatives from local organizations gathered last Wednesday for an update on Building Hope Summit County, a collaborative effort to reduce stigma and improve access to mental health care.

Nearly a year after prominent Breckenridge Realtor and philanthropist Patti Casey ended her own life, dozens of local nonprofits, businesses and government agencies have joined forces to form Building Hope Summit County, a group aiming to tackle the local mental health crisis head on.

Casey's daughter, Betsy, has been a galvanizing force behind the movement, using the loss of her mother as a way to bring the community together and figure out ways to prevent such tragedies.

"Betsy is the heart and soul of this initiative when we talk about boots on the ground," said former president of The Summit Foundation Gini Bradley. Last week, she led Building Hope's third stakeholder meeting, which drew dozens of representatives from local groups participating in the effort.

"There was a suicide a few months ago and Betsy said, 'I want to talk to the family,'" Bradley recalled. "To have the courage to cold call and say, 'How can I help?' is remarkable."

Through the energy of people like Casey and Bradley, Building Hope has been steadily gaining steam since it formed five months ago; the group has already raised $205,000 from local donors and hopes to bring in $95,000 more by the end of the year.

"People have been willing to give above and beyond because this is so important," said Jeanne Bistranin, executive director of The Summit Foundation, which coordinates fundraising for the initiative. "It's really rewarding seeing such a diverse group of people coming together in a community-oriented way."

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A growing need

According to a state behavioral health survey, the number of Colorado residents reporting a poor mental health day within the past 30 days has doubled since 2012. In Summit County, that trend is exacerbated by one of the state's highest uninsured rates — roughly 20 percent compared to the state average of 15 percent — and more limited mental health care resources.

So far this year, 10 people have taken their lives in Summit, translating to roughly triple the national rate and twice the Colorado average.

"We have the data, but a crisis is a crisis when we all say it is," said Bradley, quoting a local resident who attended a community conversation about mental health hosted by the Summit Daily in October. That was one of many local meetings Building Hope has participated in as part of its months-long effort to pinpoint gaps in Summit's mental health care system.

"One thing that was profoundly evident in a community survey we did was that residents don't know where services are," said Casey, who along with Summit School District communications director Julie McCluskie heads up Building Hope's Stigma Reduction and Public Education Committee.

Another key finding, Casey said, was that residents are reluctant to seek out mental health care because of the stigma that can be associated with doing so. A major goal of Building Hope is to erase that stigma through public education emphasizing that mental illness is simply an element of overall health and something that shouldn't be talked about any differently than a physical ailment.

Simply getting the issue out in the open and encouraging people to talk about their emotional well-being is a big part of that strategy, and was part of what prompted Building Hope to roll out seven events throughout the holiday season, including craft nights and yoga sessions.

"Our goal was to get people talking openly about these things, and our long-term goal is to institutionalize a mental wellness program," said Casey. "Let's create a community where people talk about their mental health like they talk about a knee replacement."

Changing the system

That's also a key element of Building Hope's access to care and service-integration efforts, through which the group hopes to incorporate behavioral health with traditional primary care. That way, patients could get mental check-ups as part of a standard doctor's visit instead of having to seek out mental health care from another provider. High Country Healthcare, which has offices in Breckenridge, Frisco and Silverthorne, has done just that by asking patients about their mental health during routine physicals.

One of the biggest items on Building Hope's wish list, however, are vouchers that would allow people to see mental health providers at no cost.

"No person should be denied care because they can't afford it, period," said Bradley, who envisions a streamlined, scholarship-like program that could get people care quickly and without any red tape.

"If you say you need care, you shouldn't have to fill out a 20-page application. You would get care right then."

Building Hope's agenda is ambitious, but organizers say they're very optimistic given the level of buy-in from both stakeholders and community members, who have donated generously. That, they say, will help them translate thought and discussion into action.

"The diversity of people in the room is very exciting," said assistant county manager Sarah Vaine, who leads Building Hope's Access to Care and Service Integration Committee. "We have an assumed goal of no 'paralysis by analysis.' We're not going to be overthinking this for the next three years."