Mental health crisis unfolds in Summit County as pandemic wreaks havoc on lives | SummitDaily.com
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Mental health crisis unfolds in Summit County as pandemic wreaks havoc on lives

Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of Building Hope, discusses mental health care in Summit County on Sept. 17.
Liz Copan / ecopan@summitdaily.com

FRISCO — The coronavirus pandemic has swept across the High Country like wildfire fed by an ill wind, enveloping mountain towns and burning down a way of living that seems an almost distant memory since the virus first appeared in ski country.

While the potentially ravaging effects of COVID-19 on people’s physical health have been of paramount concern to government officials looking to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the public health system, concern is also mounting over the toll that social distancing requirements, wholesale changes to lifestyle and financial turmoil caused by the pandemic are taking on the mental health of millions of Americans trapped inside their homes.

With the loss of jobs and canceling of group gatherings comes the loss of stability, cancellation of plans and delays in achieving dreams. Small businesses that had just found a footing are now seeing their foundations collapse. School sports, graduation ceremonies and prom all have been canceled. Industries that form the economic engine of Summit County — including snow sports, resorts, restaurants, hospitality, live entertainment and tourism — have shut down, leaving thousands of people in an indefinite, anxiety-inducing financial limbo.

For the elderly, there is a deadly risk associated with being around other people, even their own families, which means being shut in from the world for as long as the virus is loose. Households with working parents, many of whom lost their jobs, are struggling to avoid financial ruin while also taking care of their children at home with in-person school canceled. And while it is difficult for adults to comprehend the enormity of the problem, it is that much more incomprehensible and traumatizing for children.

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Brianne Snow, executive director of the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, has been on the front lines in the community relief effort. While helping struggling families get assistance with food, housing, health and child care, Snow is seeing the mental health damage the virus is wreaking among Summit County residents.

“It has been incredibly stressful, with up to two-thirds of the county’s workforce now out of work,” Snow said. “Over time, it takes a toll to be stuck at home, to not have much contact with the outside world.”

Among the many negative impacts of isolation is the ability to hide chronic substance abuse issues. Two businesses considered essential during the shutdown are liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries. The recipe of isolation at home, alcohol and financial stress can lead to collateral damage, manifesting in various ugly forms.

“We’re seeing a lot of heightened mental health issues, more domestic violence and potentially abusive situations with children,” Snow said. “I have spoken to countless people through the rental assistance and food programs who feel like they don’t have hope. If you’re at home alone and not talking to anyone about being hopeless, not being out in social life, people won’t notice what’s going on. It’s a recipe for disaster, truly.”

Snow anticipates that mental health struggles will become more common and be exacerbated in the county as the pandemic continues.

“We think that’s a trend that’s going to continue for a lot longer than this month,” Snow said. “We are a community dependent on tourism, and if it stops, it affects everything we do here to make a living. This is some serious trauma to these families, and it’s playing out in a really harsh way.”

However, Snow emphasized that there are many resources available despite the pandemic. Telehealth has become a critical tool for health providers during the stay-at-home order. It is now a tool being deployed for everything from diagnosing COVID-19 symptoms to virtual counseling sessions with therapists.

Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of mental health awareness and improvement nonprofit Building Hope, said a Summit High School student died by suicide this week.

She said her organization and partner mental health care provider Mind Springs are ready and able to help Summit County residents cope with this difficult period in their lives.

“We are working with Mind Springs to bring in a more robust mental health navigation team and are forming community processing groups,” McAtamney said, explaining that the groups are a way for community members to come together virtually and talk about the way the pandemic is affecting them, providing peer support and counseling to comprehend a singularly strange experience that much of the planet is enduring at the same time.

McAtamney said Building Hope — which offers art, meditation, yoga and social mixing opportunities — has brought all its programs to online platforms. That includes general discussion forums, yoga, sound healing and other opportunities for community connections. McAtamney said that virtual therapy, counseling and webinars also are available through partnerships with Mind Springs and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.

“We are trying to give people more tools in their crisis toolbox to help manage everything right now,” McAtamney said.

Building Hope also has started a messaging program called “Hope Builders,” which involves collecting and publishing inspiring stories, good news and happenings in the county.

“It’s about sharing happy things about our community, and we’re using the hashtags #HopeBuildersCO and #MountainGoodNews to encourage people to share their good news,” McAtamney said.

To browse mental health resources Building Hope helps access, visit BuildingHopeSummit.org. To share your own good news with the community, send an email to hopebuilders@buildinghopesummit.org.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have provided guidelines to deal with anxiety and stress during the pandemic. Those guidelines include recommendations for taking breaks from consuming news and social media, exercising, eating well, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and communicating with friends, family members and loved ones to check in and connect.

Mental Health Resources

Emergency

Nonemergency

Summit School District psychologists


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