Pandemic lessons learned: Longevity Project event speakers talk about mental health

Heather Gard of Breckenridge reflects Aug. 24 while sitting on a bench carved by her son Toby’s friends at the Wellington Bike Park in Breckenridge. On Tuesday, Sept. 21, she talked about losing her son to suicide during the annual Longevity Project event.
Jason Connolly/Jason Connolly Photography

The Longevity Project is an annual series hosted by the Summit Daily News that focuses on how to live a longer, happier, healthier life. For four years running, the project has covered a health topic and is capped with a paneled event and keynote speaker.

This year, the series focused on where Summit County stands with mental health, an issue that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, the event switched to a virtual format and featured Summit County parent Heather Gard, Building Hope Summit County Executive Director Jennifer McAtamney, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and Centura Health behavioral health director Doug Muir as part of a panel discussion on mental health in Summit County. Following the panel was a keynote presentation from Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor.

Here are three things we learned:

The pandemic’s impact on mental health

This isn’t a new revelation, but audience members were reminded just how much of an impact the virus has had on the community. Gard — mother of Summit High School student Toby Gard, who died by suicide in 2020 — said it had been only five weeks into the statewide stay-at-home order when her son took his life.

“He really didn’t handle the pandemic and the lockdown and the (shutdown) very well. Throughout that time, he would often say things to us like, ‘Just let me go out. … You don’t understand how bad this is for me not getting to see my friends,'” Gard said.

McAtamney said she saw the same kind of struggle begin to happen a few weeks into the pandemic in terms of demand for the organization’s services. McAtamney noted that demand for the nonprofit’s scholarship program, which helps cover the cost of counseling services, increased 55% compared with demand in 2019.

Gard noted that many people’s coping mechanisms, including her son’s, were “stripped away” with the onset of the pandemic. Toby, who enjoyed playing sports and spending time with friends, was no longer able to do so. McAtamney added that the longer the virus stayed in the community, the more problems arose, such as heading back to work or continuing everyday activities. McAtamney called this phenomenon “reentering anxiety.”

Centura Health behavioral health director Doug Muir said from his perspective, the mental health toll of the pandemic is greatly impacting front-line health care workers and that these staff members continue to feel a heavy burden.

Summit County’s unique system

When Building Hope first got its start in 2016, McAtamney explained that it was due to an increase in the number of suicide deaths in the county. The idea was to increase access to mental health services, which is what led to the organization’s popular scholarship program. The program funds up to 12 therapy sessions for those who can’t otherwise afford it.

On top of that, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team — otherwise known as SMART — is unique to the community, too. About the same time that Building Hope was getting its start, FitzSimons said he was researching co-responder methods that could be implemented in the community. The idea was to keep those with mental health issues out of the emergency room and out of jail.

FitzSimons explained that before the co-responder system was created, a person having a mental health crisis would be taken to the emergency room where they’d be put on a 72-hour mental health hold and then be sent to a psychiatric hospital outside the community.

“What happened was people would leave the community, and they would come back, and they would have lost their job, lost their house, lost their car, lost their cat — lost everything meaningful, and it would immediately send them back into a crisis,” he said. “They would also leave with an emergency room bill as well as a community mental health center bill that they couldn’t afford.”

Now that the SMART team is in place, a clinician responds to mental health calls along with an officer dressed in plain clothes. This system is unique because it doesn’t always lead to a traditional 72-hour mental health hold, and it requires a case management worker to follow up with the individual and help them access the care they need.

Positive self-talk can go a long way

Kevin Hines has an extraordinary story: The mental health advocate and suicide survivor was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features when he was 17. Hines’ mental health struggles included manic highs and dark depressions, paranoid delusions, hallucinations and panic attacks.

Roughly two years after his diagnosis, Hines jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge on Sept. 25, 2000, at 19 years old. Leading up to this moment, Hines said he heard voices that told him he had to die and that it was inevitable.

“The voices in my head were too overwhelming and overpowering and mind-bending,” he said. “They were too loud, and they were winning the day. Imagine — if you never heard psychotic voices before — having your earbuds in and instead of hearing that curated musical playlist … you hear voices in your head telling you things you have to do that you don’t want to do.”

Since going through therapy, taking medication and accessing other mental health resources, Hines said he has learned how to cope with his diagnosis. For those struggling with mental health, Hines imparted some advice that he said has helped him over the years, which is positive self-talk.

“You can conquer your inner critical voice,” he said. “You can do that by retraining it. By looking in the mirror and reciting and repeating positive things about yourself, you can retrain your brain. Your brain is malleable. It’s also the single-most powerful organ in your body controlling every action and inaction you take, every decision and indecision.”

How to get help

  • In an emergency, call 911
  • Individuals in crisis can call Colorado Crisis Services at 844-493-8255 or text “talk” to 38255.
  • For more information on local mental health resources, visit Building Hope’s website at
Kevin Hines speaks at a virtual event for The Longevity Project on Tuesday, Sept. 21.

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