There’s a heartbreaking scene in a new documentary co-produced by Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller in which Grand County snowboarder Ben Lynch is driving down the highway sometime before taking his life while on a camping trip with his wife.
It looks cold up there in the mountains, a little gray. That’s the general vibe of the first half of “The Paradise Paradox.” By now, viewers understand the name.
A paradox exists in paradise: Too many people living in Colorado ski towns suffer with mental health problems, including a staggering number who’ve died by suicide in recent years, when it seemed like they should be having the time of their lives.
Ask for help
- 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Call or text. Chat online.
- Colorado Crisis Line. 1-844-493-8255. Text TALK to 38255.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 1-800-273-8255. // Nacional de Prevención del Suicidio. 1-888-628-9454.
- Crisis Text Line. Text 741-741 to reach a counselor.
- The Trevor Project. An organization for LGBTQ young people. Call 1-866-488-7386. Text START to 678-678. Chat online.
This happens due to a confluence of forces: wealth gaps in mountain towns that grew into chasms during the COVID pandemic; lack of affordable housing; communities that rely on shredding during the day and partying at night for their happiness; and lack of adequate mental health services to help those dealing with any of these struggles cope.
Alterra Mountain Company is a sponsor of the film, and several of the places highlighted are resorts owned by the company. Winter Park/Mary Jane is one; that may be why Lynch, who was 32 when he died by suicide, is featured. But a major part of the movie — and what bookends it — is a story about Eagle County’s unbelievable success at tackling the mental health crisis that peaked with 17 suicides in 2017.
In a tale well-known by now, residents couldn’t accept one more child taking their life, so they created a task force to tackle the problem. They galvanized to pass ballot measure 1A, which taxed retail pot sales and directed all funds to mental health and substance abuse services. The money allowed the group to do a gap analysis, looking for failings in the county’s mental health care system, and devise a plan to fill them.
Then, in 2018, Vail Health committed $60 million over 10 years to push the effort forward. Not long after, Vail real estate developer Amanda Precourt — who struggled with mental health issues and is one of the film’s anchors — gave Vail Health a “generous gift” toward building an inpatient behavioral health facility in Edwards. When the 50,000-square-foot hospital opens in 2025, it will offer all of the mental health services the grassroots organizers wished for in 2017 and then some.
It’s a monumental success for a community that five years ago had no place locally to bring a child who was experiencing a mental health breakdown. But perhaps without intending to, the film overlooks some key factors in Colorado’s ongoing high country mental health crisis: Vail had help from Summit County in solving its problem and had the good fortune to get a windfall of money to improve its mental health services. The problem is tougher to solve in smaller counties, which are often less well-heeled or privy to government resources. “The Paradise Paradox” paints Eagle County as a town among ski resorts with the answers to solving ski country’s mental health issues, but there’s more to the story.
“It’s hard because there’s so much more wealth in Eagle County and because we’re in these zones with Mind Springs [Health] and what have you in Grand Junction,” Megan Ledin, executive director of the Grand Foundation in Fraser, said. (For years Mind Springs has been wracked with controversy over things like dangerous prescription practices, the quality and safety of the care it gives teenagers and children, and failure to serve the most vulnerable Coloradans, although Ledin didn’t mention these when discussing the organization.) The size and population of Grand County is another challenge, Ledin added, saying, “I wish we could have some sort of 72-hour facility, but with our demographics would a detox or holding facility in Grand County be sustainable?”
Services “are not about the money”
Chris Lindley, chief population health officer at Vail Health and executive director at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, admits Eagle County benefitted from Vail Health “being a trailblazer” in the industry.
But more importantly, as a community, he said, “We all agreed we needed a plan. Then we all agreed to the plan. Then came the funding. And I would argue that if other communities do [the same], getting the resources becomes a lot easier. Yes, it might be easier in a resort community like Vail or Aspen or Steamboat. But these resources exist, not only from individuals. There’s a great amount of state grants available. Health care in general needs to take a much bigger role in behavioral health.”
Ledin agrees with Lindley’s last statement, but adds, “Behavioral health services are contingent on your population and needs of a community.” And when you look at the wealth in a place like Eagle County versus Grand County, the amount of money available to Eagle will likely be higher than to Grand.
That leaves Grand County having to do without certain services or providing smaller-scale versions with fewer resources. Ledin said when distributing money, the Grand Foundation “tries to look at what nonprofits aren’t meeting needs, usually because of a financial barrier, and then asks, ‘How can we support them to make things better?’” That’s work for a small foundation that started in 1996 through the sale of ski and golf passes and has since distributed $23 million in grants through multiple funding sources including donor advised and designated funds, and – coming – an endowment.
Two of the Grand Foundation’s notable mental health successes of late are a transportation service that takes mental health or substance abuse patients from Middle Park Health hospital in Granby to services in Grand Junction, and a “one-stop-shop” website that connects people experiencing a mental health crisis with appropriate services, Ledin said.
Called Building Hope Grand County, the website helps people evaluate the severity of a mental health crisis, offers a list of 43 local providers specializing in dozens of different fields and relays information on grants for various services, screening for different ailments and a list of providers — all of whom accept vouchers from the Grand County Rural Health Network in place of money — accepting patients.
The foundation also funds a mental health voucher program and a scholarship program, which help both patients and providers. The patients get help paying for appointments above and beyond the 12 granted in the voucher program and out-of-county providers are given office space at no cost to see patients in the county.
There’s a moment in “The Paradise Paradox” when Ledin is asked about her work and she breaks down crying. Later, in an interview with The Colorado Sun, she said it made her think of her daughter dealing with two years of serious depression while a college freshman during COVID. And of the 12 kids connected to Grand County who took their own lives between 2018 and present. Then there was the son of a good friend who dealt with substance abuse issues and overdosed on fentanyl, thinking it was sleeping pills. “But what can we do? We have a culture problem where it’s OK to drink and do drugs, and then the isolation comes in and depression, and it exacerbates the problem,” she said.
Lack of affordable housing contributes to mental health issues in Grand County as well, Ledin added. “Young kids come here thinking they’re going to ski, and then they have to work three to four jobs just to afford rent. So we also have housing assistance funds. We look at someone’s gross pay versus rent and if it exceeds 30% we’ll bridge it for a whole year.”
But some skiers and snowboarders still use drugs and alcohol to cope. “And when you get to extremes, or have an addictive personality, if the culture is that of drinking or drugs, someone with those tendencies may lean toward that,” she said. “We just want our people to know resources are out there. And if you don’t want to go down that path, there’s lots of other avenues.”
Ledin wishes Grand County could fund full-time behavioral health counselors in its schools like Eagle County has done. But there’s not enough money for that, at least not at the moment.
The “other avenues” are trying to do their part, however. Stephanie Pierce, founder of the nonprofit Tame Wellness in downtown Fraser, came to Grand County in search of a mountain lifestyle after years of methamphetamine addiction. She found what she wanted, and decided to open Tame for others trying to kick their addictions.
Tame offers recovery planning, one-on-one consultations, medication-assisted substance abuse treatment, and year-round sober events and gatherings. On Monday night, Pierce was hosting a Halloween eve mini-pumpkin painting event.
She says you don’t have to be sober to participate in Tame events, but that she created them to give people attempting sobriety an escape from the many other non-sober options in Grand County. And Ledin says if you want to know how the Grand Foundation was able to start the Building Hope Grand County Fund, through which it has paid out $1 million to mental health and substance abuse services since its founding a year ago, take a look at Summit County’s Building Hope program, which was also a blueprint for Eagle County.
How Summit County guided Grand and Eagle counties
Like Eagle County’s and Grand County’s mental health programs, Summit County’s grew out of a rash of suicides. One of them was Patti Casey, a prominent community member who was highly involved in the Summit Foundation, a role model for the Grand Foundation. She had struggled with medication-resistant depression, but no one outside of her immediate family knew about it, said Kellyn Ender, executive director of Building Hope Summit. When she became one of 13 people who died by suicide in 2016, the county knew it needed to do more to address its mental health problem.
“The Summit Foundation was fortunate in that following Casey’s death, her family created a memorial fund in her honor,” Ender said. “One of the biggest focus areas was stigma reduction: They wanted to really promote talking about mental health, talking about how struggles are a part of our nature, they happen to everyone, and we should be able to talk about our mental health in the same way we talk about our physical health.”
Word about a new program called Building Hope Summit circulated in the community, and over 60 leaders came together to assess the county’s mental health needs. Among these were access to care, resource navigation and reducing financial barriers to therapy. In May 2019, the nonprofit was formed to fulfill these and increase the capacity of mental health care in the county. The foundation’s guiding principle: “We are our partners.” And their 2022 total income: $2,262,500, which Ender said “goes straight back into the community.”
Ledin says Building Hope Summit was instrumental in getting Building Hope Grand County off the ground.
And Lindley said Summit County and Pitkin County inspired Eagle County with “ideas and inspiration and models” of what their program could look like.
“Summit was our closest partner, because of what we’ve learned from them, particularly their amazing scholarship program,” he added. Eagle County also named its scholarship fund after a community member who died by suicide. They modeled their co-response model after Pitkin County’s “because it was incredible,” Lindley said. “So those two ideas, which are two of our mega successes, came from neighboring communities. We said they’re doing it, we can do it and we called them and asked how did you do it?”
But only Eagle County got the big prize: the 50,000-square-foot facility which will be named after Amanda Precourt and her father.
About the facility…
There’s a caveat to the facility, however.
Lindley said even though it’s coming, “it’s not where we want our patients to go. It’s not where we want any patients to go.”
Then he clarified that he and other providers hope the facility won’t be necessary.
“We’re building it, because right now, in our community, in our region, we have folks that need to be hospitalized who must go three hours in either direction for services,” he continued. “And this building will be centrally located in the Rocky Mountains and available to the whole region. That will cut down a lot of the concern about transportation. So Grand County, Lake County, Summit County should not build a facility.”
Instead, he said, these counties and others “will need some of the other things that they’re all working on and that we’ve built. It’s like all the handouts, so when someone gets out of an inpatient facility, they need to have outpatient behavioral health services. They need clinicians available to see patients for therapy. They need med management, so some psychiatry or psychiatric nurse practitioners that are available. And they need therapists in school, and really strong anti-stigma programs.”
For now, Grand County at least will have to make do with the resources it has, to help as many people as it can, while continually brainstorming new ways to spread the wealth.
Meanwhile, “The Paradise Paradox” is touring mountain cities and towns across the U.S., and presenters are holding discussions, Q&As and panel talks to “enrich the audience’s experience and engagement with the film’s pivotal themes.” It’s been shown in Durango and Pagosa Springs with movie times in Denver and Beaver Creek upcoming. And another 15 Colorado screenings have been requested.
A spokesperson for Podium Pictures said participants in the talks have included community mental health organizations, civic leaders, key stakeholders and the general public, and that anyone wanting to host a DIY screening can do so by signing up at this link.
The ultimate goal, organizers add, “is to not only raise awareness but to inspire actionable change, driving both local and national stakeholders to conceive, collaborate, and implement creative and effective solutions to the mental health challenges unveiled in the film.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated Oct. 31, 2023, at 8:23 a.m. to correct the number of suicides in Eagle County in 2017.