Hats off to Paul Aex
February 23, 2008
FRISCO ” Paul Aex’s easy-going style, sense of humor and compassion are noticeable after just a brief meeting. And they are likely traits that have helped make him successful at what he does.
For 41 years, Aex has worked in mental health, and 34 of those has been with Colorado West, offering counseling services and crisis response. But at the end of this month, he will retire from being the on-call therapist for Summit and Eagle counties.
“I think it’s the challenge of meeting someone and helping them resolve something that feels overwhelming to them,” said Aex, describing what has loved about his work.
In recent years, he has been on-call 24 hours a day, five days a week, helping those in crisis. While Aex can’t talk about specific cases because of confidentiality, there are ones that he will never forget.
“I’ve really enjoyed watching some of the teenagers get through stuff and get on with their lives,” Aex said, recalling one in particular who turned everything around after nearly overdosing.
Aex was always interested in sociology and in college, he received a bachelor’s degree in the field. From there, he went on to participate in a program in Illinois that trained him in mental health, and worked at the Chicago State Hospital for seven years. He received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois in Chicago, and then in 1973, he came to Colorado.
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At that time, Colorado West hired him to start two offices in Rio Blanco County where he did crisis response and offered counseling services.
“It was kind of like being a pioneer … that was rural mental health in the extreme,” he said with a smile.
In 1986, he moved to Summit County. At that time the Colorado West office was in a house that was alleged to be haunted on French Street in Breckenridge, he said. He worked as a therapist and continued to do some on-call response until about seven years ago. That’s when he took crisis response on full-time.
“There’s periods of time when you don’t sleep at all,” Aex said. “You can even go a couple days without sleep.”
Some of the calls he deals with include suicide attempts, people who are in the middle of tough life situations or people acting paranoid or who may be hearing voices. He has helped with parent and child conflicts and domestic violence.
Aex estimates that recently, about 70 percent of the calls he responded to involved intoxicated people threatening suicide. In Summit County, he tends to most frequently respond to people between ages 20 and 40.
The calls come from 911, the Colorado West office, emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, schools, police departments and jails, he explained.
“I feel like I have a permanent room in the jail, along with a permanent room in the emergency room,” joked Aex, who later added that he is impressed with how local agencies work together as a team.
Kathy Davis, program director at Colorado West, said, “The community has been really lucky to have him.”
She has known Aex for about seven years and when she first considered getting into mental health, she met him at a critical incident debriefing meeting.
“It was meeting him that was a huge part of me pursing this. He’s just so compassionate and so present for people. … People could easily be jaded by the kind of work that he does,” Davis said. But Aex has “the best sense of humor. … He’s just so endearing.”
Now, in retirement, Aex is looking forward to having a normal sleep pattern, getting to spend time with his grandson, Caleb, staying involved in the community and possibly doing search and rescue work, skiing, hiking and continuing his hobby of photography.
Also, his wife, Claudia, works in detox which is now housed in Colorado West, so he will stay involved. The couple has two sons: Tom, a commercial pilot; and Tim, a photographer who is also attending the University of Colorado’s nursing school.
Mike McCormick, Ph.D, division director of Colorado West for Grand, Summit and Eagle counties, has known Aex for many years.
“Anyone who can do 30 plus years of emergency service … my hat’s off to you. That takes a special person,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for Paul. … He’s certainly going to be hard to replace.”