Suicide rates in Mesa County remain high and there is still a lack of resources to handle the problem.

“We need to look at mental health the same way we look at physical health. There’s cardiovascular disease, and then there’s COVID-19, and then there’s cancer. Mental health is just as nuanced,” said Hali Nurnberg, executive director of the Counseling Education Center (CEC).

Seeking help is just the start of the process.

“It’s also important for people to know that seeking counseling isn’t going to solve everything, she said. We’re just there to help you work through life. We’re the coach on the sideline and you’re the player on the field.”

CEC is a mental health counseling center that was founded in 1981 and the public was invited to an open house to celebrate the anniversary on Saturday at 2708 Patterson Road.

Nurnberg said the goal was to get their services on people’s radar so people seeking help know there are options in the Grand Valley.

Consistent struggles

According to Mesa County Public Health, there have been at least 45 suicides in the county each year since 2016. The incidence rate per 100,000 people in Mesa County is significantly higher than Colorado and the U.S.

In 2019, 46 people died by suicide in Mesa County and MCPH estimates there were more than 300 attempted suicides. Of those 46, nine in 10 were male and only 15% had been in contact with a behavioral health professional in the previous 90 days.

Despite the need for resources, Mesa County is designated as an underserved area for mental health resources by the National Health Service Corps — as are the majority of rural counties in Colorado.

“I think in many cases, it’s getting to be more publicized recently, which is good,” said Penny Frankhouser, who served as the executive director of CEC in the 1990s. “But the stigma around it is still really prevalent. I think instead of seeing it as the beginning step to getting healthy, people think seeking treatment is the end step for being sick. And I don’t know if that mindset has changed that much.”

MAKING AN EFFORT

Local counselors are making a concerted effort to better provide for patients.

Lydia Storey-Lopez is a counselor from Olathe who works with people with substance use disorders, and she utilizes Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT).

ACT essentially means using mindfulness to address risky behaviors. By putting oneself in the present moment and consciously choosing their language and actions, they can have healthier thoughts and practices.

“I ask people what they want in life and what is preventing them from achieving that,” Storey-Lopez said. “Do you value family but your substance use is in the way of seeing your kids? OK, how do we fix that?”

Another modality that Storey-Lopez uses is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

In a multi-phased approach, EMDR utilizes mental body scans to address trauma. Some meta-analyses — which evaluate published studies — have shown it to be effective in addressing serious trauma and PTSD. There is some uncertainty on its effectiveness given the low volume of participants in studies and potential for researcher bias.

“Our staff are trained in EMDR. It can be applied to a variety of different issues such as anxieties and phobias,” Nurnberg said. “We all suffer in life, so this treatment can help us reach recovery and healing after that.”

There is optimism around the future of mental health services in Mesa County, too.

Nurnberg said that the state will be improving its standards for supervisors, who train incoming professionals.

“CEC has a lot of high quality supervisors and we’re hoping that they can steer and create more high quality counselors in the Valley,” she said.

Nurnberg also said that she’s keeping an eye on incoming federal aid that can be used for mental health services.

Ultimately, health professionals see positive growth and awareness of mental health struggles. All of this, they hope, can continue momentum to solving the issue that former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman called a “public health crisis.”

“You’re not alone and you don’t need to be embarrassed to struggle with mental health issues. Everyone does,” Storey-Lopez said. “I think young people are particularly vulnerable and they need to be able to seek help without stigma. I think we’re getting there.”