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Valley Voices article - Sheriff James Van Beek: Mental health is not just about illness

This has been a week focused on mental health. We began with the exciting news of funding by Vail Health to supplement the marijuana tax to provide essential mental health programs in Eagle County. We then had the wave of response from across the state on the “red flag” law, which involves the confiscation of guns relating to those in a mental health crisis (official Sheriff’s Office response is forthcoming). 

Then, on a personal note, I was informed by my son that his best friend suddenly passed away and he is saddened to the depths of his soul on how to process the grief. 

Mental health is not just about illness, it is also about handling the tragedies that occur in everyday life. The curveballs that life throws at us, which can make us feel as though we simply cannot take another thing … but we can.

In this world of social media contacts, during times of crisis, how truly connected are we? We’ve all experienced areas of loss, disappointment, fear, and loneliness where we wonder if anyone truly cares and, if faced with needing to make a serious decision, we question if it is the correct one. 

Having people, programs, and places where we can turn for advice and other help can be life-changing.  The crisis may trigger an emotional response that, left unattended, can become a behavioral disorder, but often it is a temporary need for sound advice or other assistance. Long-term or short-term, we occasionally need professional guidance and, sometimes, medical and psychological treatment.

If it’s a job loss, family change, financial setback, health concern, or other major incident, it can make us question our ability to make sound decisions and sometimes it is accompanied by the guilt of what we could have done differently.

We also know of those who suffer in silence with issues of sexual assault, domestic abuse, robberies, and other traumatic incidents, which can stay with a person, long afterward. Life in Happy Valley is not immune to the tragedies of life that occur elsewhere.

As young people prepare for graduation and a life away from home, anxiety can set in as they soon realize that the “real world” is not what is portrayed on television or even on social media. Those happy photos posted are staged and filtered, and only show the happiest moments, leading others to believe that their lives are somehow less than everyone else’s. With these huge numbers of “friends” online, how is it that our youngest people feel so isolated to the point that we are breaking records of depression, drug abuse, and worst of all, suicide of middle school children? 

When high school and college graduates are confronted with the realities of being independent … paying bills, finding a job that covers expenses and student loans, locating that special someone with whom to establish a long-term relationship, it can be a bit much. Although they are things we all go through, when faced all at once, they can become overwhelming and may lead, even the most secure person, into a state of depression. Isn’t this supposed to be the happiest time of their lives?  They begin to wonder, what’s wrong with them that they are so scared?

Processing lingering feelings may be unsettling, but if suppressed, can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Often, we see people turn to alcohol or other substances to calm the nerves or the pain, yet with the increase in opioid addiction and suicides, we simply must develop better options. 

In Eagle County, we are at the forefront of establishing public-private partnerships to become a model of mental health treatment for communities across the nation. Our county has engaged professionals, covering every aspect of the process, from hospitals to nonprofits to schools, employers, counselors, law enforcement, social services, sports organizations, community groups, clergy, and others. We seek to provide support on every level. If someone is in crisis, we want help to be readily accessible, and easy to engage. 

We are a nation in transition when it comes to identifying and treating mental health issues.  In Eagle County, the concern we have for our fellow neighbors, friends, and even visitors, inspires us to do more, be more, care more, which lifts us up as a community.  I am proud and honored to be of service to the wonderful members of this place we call home.  

James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at james.vanbeek@eaglecounty.us.