Casey: Foundations for Building Hope Summit County (column)
I was born and raised in Breckenridge. Growing up in Summit, I had amazing opportunities and benefits. I had a mountain in my backyard to ski whenever I pleased; the air was clean, the environment exquisite and the community tight knit. Despite these truly wonderful aspects, there were some really tough parts about growing up in Summit. The smallness of the community evoked feelings of isolation and loneliness. As a kid, there wasn’t much to do on the weekends or the evenings. I got bored and restless, usually getting into trouble as a result. Additionally, as news tends to circulate more quickly in smaller towns, it created a hesitancy to reach out or share personal challenges for fear of it becoming common knowledge within the entire town.
When I struggled with depression and an eating disorder as an adolescent there weren’t a lot of resources in the community to help our family, and we definitely didn’t talk to other people about it. And whether it was directly talked about or just an underlying expectation, living in the perfect town of Breckenridge, with the perfect recreation opportunities and the perfect mountains, I believed there was a strong desire for individuals and families to uphold the perfect façade.
Ten months ago, my life was forever changed in one single moment. I received a phone call from my Dad that my Mom had taken her life. The next few months were treacherous, disorienting, filled with paralyzing fear, confusion, disbelief and horror. It was a mixture of emotions I hope no one else ever has to experience: utter disorientation, sheer panic, profound despair, unrelenting waves of grief. I felt as though I had fallen into a sea of darkness, chaos and pain. I couldn’t find my bearings or come up for air. I was drowning in a new reality that I did not choose. How could this happen? What should I have done? What do I do now? How is the world still spinning? What does this mean? The questions were on rerun, looping endlessly in my mind.
Eventually, as things began to slow down, and despite still not emotionally grasping much of what had transpired, our family decided we wanted to do something. Still plagued by grief we did the only thing we knew how to — start talking; something our family had never done, lest others see we weren’t perfect. That didn’t matter anymore. We opened up the conversation, talked about what privately tormented my Mom and shared with complete candor how depression and addiction had impacted our family. We also started a fund at The Summit Foundation in her name in hopes of providing further support for Summit County residents with mental health and substance abuse issues. We didn’t know then what it would look like, how it would function, or the extent to which it would touch the community, but in our powerlessness, this was the one thing we did have power over.
That was April of this year. What has transpired in the last six months has been astounding. Working under the expertise of Gini Bradley, a community coordinating genius, alongside dozens of local agencies, nonprofits, private providers, government entities, municipalities, law enforcement officers, state commission offices and brilliant community leaders, we have conducted in-depth research to understand Summit’s biggest barriers to care, analyzed our current systems, built initiative infrastructure including creation of an advisory board and establishment of a full-time coordinator position, met with other communities with robust mental health programs to compare notes and discuss effective models of care, brainstormed strategic and sustainable solutions to make behavioral health care more accessible, executed community events, helped facilitate better agency collaboration and began building hope within our community. So that’s why we called our initiative Building Hope.
Building Hope Summit County is a community wide initiative designed to create a more coordinated, effective and responsive mental health system that promotes emotional health, reduces stigma, and improves access to care and support for everyone in Summit County.
The truth is, people are afraid to talk about mental health. It scares them. Suicide most of all. I will be the first to admit, if my life hadn’t been touched by my Mom’s suicide, I might not have been passionate about signing up for a Mental Health First Aid training or have felt compelled to initiate a discussion about the negative impacts of stigma. Yet the further my journey leads me into understanding behavioral health systems and why people are falling through the cracks, the more I see how our lack of understanding and consequently our inability to talk about mental health issues further perpetuates the problem. Our mental health effects everything we do. From our medical health, job productivity, personal and professional relationships to the way we drive our cars, all are ultimately influenced by our attitudes and mental wellbeing (or lack thereof). Therefore, talking about these issues will be critical to stamping out stigma and changing community behaviors.
We don’t label people with kidney disease or heart disease as moral failures. Therefore, when something goes awry in the brain (an addiction or mental disorder), that, too, is not a moral or personal failure. That’s dysfunctional brain chemistry. It is a legitimate, medical condition. It is time for us to stop thinking that mental health is separate from medical health or that someone’s mental health issues are a result of them not trying hard enough or perhaps something they chose. No one chooses to be bipolar, depressed or addicted.
We are evolved creatures with a profound capacity for compassion and love. This is why we desperately need to combat our mental health crisis. Judgement, fear and ignorance are outdated, unnecessary and ineffective. What we need is a permanent culture shift toward understanding, support, compassion and a community that functions with a few things in mind: 1) mental health is medical health; 2) mental health (depression, addiction, anxiety) is not a reflection of who someone is as a person – it is a chemical imbalance; 3) eliminating stigma starts with one person shifting their judgements, educating themselves and having the willingness to see something differently; 4) this cannot be an isolated endeavor by a few key leaders, we need everyone to be involved in order for this vital shift to take place.
I continue to wrestle with why my Mom chose to leave, but if the message around mental health and substance abuse wasn’t one of shame, fear and blame, I believe that she would have reached out, not suffered in silence and perhaps still be here. Therefore, this has become my mission and what I seek to change – to create a community where people talk about their mental health like they talk about their knee replacements, to eliminate financial barriers, cultural barriers and end stigma making mental health care universally accessible and available to all, and that is what Building Hope is all about.
If you would like more information about the initiative, check out our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/BuildingHopeSummitCounty/. Please come check out one of our free, holiday community events, volunteer to be on one of our working committees or attend an upcoming mental health training. Your voice matters and you are a powerful agent for change.
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