“Concerns around behavioral health in our community…”
[ By Kendra Walker ]
The Gunnison County Community Health Coalition recently conducted a behavioral health needs assessment in order to better understand the needs and gaps in the community from a behavioral health standpoint. The report is intended to engage in dialogue with regional collaborators to create a strategic plan with solutions based on the needs of the community.
During the May 17 Mt. Crested Butte town council meeting, representatives from the Gunnison Valley Community Health Coalition shared their findings.
“There are concerns around behavioral health in our community,” said lead investigator and data analyst John Powell. “We want to understand what it means in our community and understand what the needs and gaps are.”
The report includes data from more than 40 informant interviews and over 50 quantitative data sets analyzed over a seven-month period. The study explores why someone may not be seeking mental health treatment and how socioeconomic conditions including housing, occupation, cost of living, and living standards affect a community’s health.
Jeff Moffett of Triple Point Strategic Consulting explained that high financial stress is a contributing factor to behavioral health. “Financial stress creates poor behavioral health outcomes,” he said.
Additionally, the nature of the Gunnison County economy and its relatively low levels of employee compensation undermines the standard of living. “Cheerios cost the same here as they do on the East Coast but here housing, healthcare, childcare, etc. are higher,” he said.
Looking at 2019 data, the median household income in Gunnison County was $56,577 compared to the state at $72,331. From 2016, mean incomes rose at a greater rate than median, which is an indication of rising income disparity. Within the service sector, a prominent industry here where tourism is a big economic driver, labor income averaged $36,678.
“We estimate that 30-45% of Gunnison County residents live below the self-sufficiency standard,” said Moffett. Additionally, the portion of the population of Gunnison County experiencing food insecurity in recent years has ranged from 10-15%.
The study also found that the number of people working more than one job increased 14% from 2016 to 2019. “That creates trade-offs for families, you’re not home when the kids get home from school, you can’t make it to your child’s concert, you’re not there with your spouse. It creates a domino effect for stress,” said Moffett.
According to the study, Gunnison County has faced a shortage of affordable housing dating back to at least 1992 and relatively few housing units have been built in the last decade. However, population growth has been almost twice housing unit growth for the past decade.
“Housing came up in every interview,” noted Moffett.
Moffett said that rental rates in the City of Gunnison have risen at an annual average of 8% from 2012 and half of the renters spend more than a third of their incomes on rent.
He also shared that as average home values/rents have climbed significantly while median income has not, the number of Center for Mental Health clients have increased.
“New visits to the Center for Mental Health are pretty well correlated with rate of growth and increase in housing costs,” he said. The incomes aren’t growing at the same rate as costs, and the result is poor mental health outcomes.”
Substance abuse and suicide
Gunnison County has roughly 119 liquor licenses and 11 recreational cannabis dispensaries, which is closely related to the tourist-based economy. “We live in a place where people come to vacation and party and that culture seeps into the everyday living culture of locals,” said Powell.
Powell noted that the increases in substance abuse are based on a combination of factors: people are squeezed financially and cope with substances, the accessibility and the potency/addictiveness of drugs has increased, a portion of people distrust “governmental” agencies that seek to help people get sober, the community favors heavy substance use, and the community lacks treatment options for substance abuse issues.
Alcohol is the most prevalent substance related to suicides, and the most prominent occupations for suicide in the county are construction, accommodation and food services. Powell noted that the suicides in Gunnison County for the past 15 years for the most part follow a pattern: white male, never married, between the ages of 20 and 34, death by firearm.
“How can we boost support for some of these people working long hours, odd hours, who are outside exposed to the elements,” he said.
Childcare and youth
Stressed parenting has significant impact on child development and behaviors. For example, lack of high-quality early childhood care impacts behavioral health in many ways, shared the team. According to the study, roughly 371 children under 5 are without formal childcare.
“Full-time infant or toddler care can often cost as much as someone’s mortgage,” said Powell. “It’s very expensive to find childcare and it’s very limited. Lack of high quality early childhood care impacts stressed parents, impacts how they interact with their children, how they show up for their children.”
Between 2020 and 2021, 74% of the youths referred to Gunnison Valley Mentors lived in homes where abuse or neglect, family violence or witnessing violence in the home was a concern. Of all Project Hope clientele with children in 2020, 27.3% of the children lived in a home with a parent having a mental health issue.
Barriers to access
The team shared that there are several reasons why folks experiencing these stressors don’t necessarily always seek help. Stigma, belief systems and lack of connection with services were some common barriers to not seeking higher level of care.
Moffett and Powell noted that different approaches of services, as well as solutions that involve diverse community members are needed to reduce stigmas and other barriers.
“It’s important to consider these services don’t feel governmental or sterile,” said Powell. “It’s imperative to have people with lived experience at the table or their voice being heard in those conversations so that the access to services are meaningful.”
Using the study findings, the team is now looking at how to continue to expand on community services to meet the need. They stressed the importance of regional collaboration and urged the council to consider some key questions as decisions are being made. “What programs/services do we need or need to expand upon? How much will it cost and how are we going to pay for it? How do we decrease costs and increase incomes? We have a lot of structural things in place, but how can we address these issues more collaboratively across organizations rather than work in our individual silos?” said Moffett. “Think about how this data and information fits into your values, goals, and existing strategic plans.”
The full report can be viewed at gcchc.squarespace.com/community-resources.