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Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney visits with Gov. Jared Polis at Battle Mountain High School on Friday, Apr. 19. (Katie Harmon, special to The Colorado Sun)

EDWARDS — She was a few days past her 13th birthday when she took her life in February 2018. The shockwaves of the seventh-grader’s suicide reverberated across Eagle County, with counselors, therapists and mental health advocates scrambling to prevent the dreaded cluster that too often follows teen suicides.

A year later, they are still scrambling, but with a battle plan and a much deeper war chest.

The middle-school student was among the first of 17 suicides in Eagle County in 2018. Since 2017, 37 Eagle County residents have ended their own lives.  

“These are our neighbors, our students, our friends. Our community is facing a behavioral health crisis,” said Jill Ryan a former Eagle County commissioner who now serves as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “The last few years have really shaken us up.”

Here’s how to get involved with suicide prevention, or find help

Ryan on Friday introduced Gov. Jared Polis at Edwards’ Battle Mountain High School as the valley’s galvanized behavioral health community celebrated the recent announcement that Vail Health — the nonprofit community hospital with 12 locations in Eagle and Summit counties — was investing $60 million in a mental health support network in the Vail and Eagle River valleys.

The announcement comes as the hospital grapples with a growing wave of emergency room visits for anxiety and depression, up from 63 in 2013 to 290 last year. Surveys of students in Eagle County schools are numbing: nearly one in four seventh-graders and eighth-graders considered suicide in 2017 and 16 percent of those students had formed a suicide plan.

And perhaps most sobering: Eagle County counted 324 suicide attempts in 2018, nearly one a day.

“Our youth is really suffering right now,” said Chris Lindley, who heads Eagle County Public Health and Environment.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, right, speaks with Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney during a discussion on mental health at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards. (Chris Dillmann, The Vail Daily)

At Friday’s meeting he asked the gathering to imagine spending as much time and money on behavioral health as they spend on physical health.

“We are a community that builds its recognition around tourism and our enthusiasm around physical health … but we have seem to have forgotten our mental health and our behavioral health,” Lindley said.

Vail Health’s 10-year, $60 million commitment follows a year of meetings involving an army of community groups, from paramedics and police to mental health providers and youth groups working to identify the needs and gaps in mental health care in Eagle County.  

Eagle County residents in 2017 voted to funnel tax revenue from marijuana sales toward mental health services. The marijuana money — about $425,00 in 2018 — has helped the county contribute more than $1 million to behavioral health initiatives. Last fall, voters in 10 Colorado communities followed Eagle County’s lead and approved steering more tax revenue toward mental health treatment and school programs.

Colorado spends about $1 billion a year on mental and behavioral health services, said Polis, who earlier this month created a behavioral health task force to improve the state’s mental health system.

“We have in many ways a real suicide crisis in our state,” said Polis, noting how suicide rates are climbing in other Colorado mountain communities like Durango and La Plata County, part of a trend that has earned mountain communities across the West recognition as the nation’s “suicide belt.” “We have amazing quality of life in a place like Eagle County and a place like Durango, but you can’t automatically assume that just because we live in a beautiful area with great public lands and a great supportive environment, that doesn’t negate the need for mental health.”

Colorado Crisis Line: A statewide hotline. 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.

Polis heralded Vail Health’s commitment as “an example of leading,” saying the partnerships forged by the valley’s health care providers “is absolutely critical as a lynchpin to build upon and leverage to help meet the mental and behavioral health needs of this valley.”

The $60 million from Vail Health is less than half of what the county needs over the next decade to install a support system for Eagle County’s mental health needs.  

“It’s mind-blowing to see the investment we are going to need to take over the next decade to complete our goals,” Lindley said.

The 10-year cost estimate of $121 million to $218 million would create a behavioral health facility — open 24 hours a day — where police could bring people who might otherwise end up in jail. That money would increase the number of behavior and mental health providers to 50, pulling the county up to the nation’s average number of providers per resident. It would support coordination of services across the county, create a crisis response team and develop programs in area schools and jails.

The Vail Health money will direct $30 million toward those needs: $12 million for a 24-hour facility, possibly in Avon or Edwards, $11 million in in-kind support tapping the hospital’s network of administrators, IT workers and fundraisers, and $7 million for salaries and operations. Will Cook, Vail Health’s new chief executive, said he hopes the money starts changing how the community addresses mental health.   

“We should be embarrassed to tell somebody that we haven’t seen a behavioral health therapist or received some form of behavioral health therapy in a year as we would be to say ‘I haven’t gone to have my teeth cleaned in a year,’” Cook said. “We have got to shift our mindset.”

Battle Mountain student Saphira Klearman helped create Project We Care Colorado, which offers support to students struggling with suicidal thoughts. She introduced Polis with an emotional plea and praise for Vail Health’s backing.

“The students here in this school, in this county, in this state, are dying. We are crying out for help and finally, finally we have been confronted by something that will save lives,” she said. “It is imperative that we act now. We need to break the stigma, start the conversation … to make it OK to talk about mental illness.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins