Rocky Mountain Health Plans, a Uniteded Healthcare Company

Paradox of Paradise

The beauty of Summit County Colorado stands in stark contrast to the inequality and mental health struggles faced by many residents.

To many, living in a Colorado ski community sounds like an idyllic life. Quick access to outdoor activities, upscale restaurants, and stunning scenery seem like the backdrop for a high-flying life of ease and adventure. The reality, however, can be sobering. Booming tourist populations drive up housing and living costs to the point where many residents are working multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

PARADOX OF PARADISE

The beauty of Summit County Colorado stands in stark contrast to the inequality and mental health struggles faced by many residents.

To many, living in a Colorado ski community sounds like an idyllic life. Quick access to outdoor activities, upscale restaurants and stunning scenery seem like the backdrop for a high-flying life of ease and adventure. The reality, however, can be sobering. Booming tourist populations drive up housing and living costs, to the point where many residents are working multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

It’s called the Paradise Paradox, and nowhere has it hit harder than Summit County, Colorado. Summit County has a population of roughly 30,000 people. A tightly knit and diverse community, many immigrant families call this beautiful backdrop home. While hiking, kayaking, and skiing are wonderful outlets for many residents, it’s hard to feel like a success in a place with such ostentatious displays of wealth. In fact, 30% to 35% of the kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch programs. All of this takes a toll on the mental health of Summit County residents. The area actually suffered a suicide rate 300% above the national average, prompting many leaders and residents to take independent action to improve services in their community.

Kayaking is one of Otto's favorite activities and one of the things he loves most about living in Summit County.

One man in particular is turning his experience with suicide into action. Otto, originally from Guatemala, came to the U.S. 20 years ago and has loved most of his time in Colorado. An avid kayaker, he enjoys the activities and beauty that Summit County has to offer. Otto was enchanted upon his arrival, having never seen snow before, and has been hooked ever since. But, like many, life here hasn’t always been so picturesque for him. 

In 2020, Otto needed a roommate to offset some of the costs he incurred after a bad bout with COVID-19. When a man from Denver responded to his ad, Otto accepted at once. The two men became fast friends and even talked about going kayaking together, but that dream would never come to fruition. Only a few months after his roommate had moved in, Otto realized he hadn’t heard from him in a few days, so he went to check on him. Opening his roommate’s door, Otto discovered that the man had died by suicide. 

Indescribable shock and grief set in almost immediately. Of the horrific experience, Otto says, “It was very shocking. I felt like I was going crazy when I saw him, and I didn’t know what to do at the time. And many things came into my mind. And all I did was call 911.” To make an already awful situation even worse, the police questioned Otto for nearly seven hours. Ultimately, Otto was cleared, but the stress and grief took a toll on his mental health.

Downtown Frisco, Colorado.

Otto couldn’t go back home. His apartment was a crime scene, and the trauma felt overwhelming and all-consuming. Otto knew something was wrong when he could not even work without breaking down. Within his Hispanic community there is a stigma around mental health issues. They are rarely talked about, so Otto wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong or why he felt this way. The idea of getting help through therapy was new to him, but his boss saw him struggling and reached out to a contact at Building Hope to get Otto the help he needed. 

Building Hope is a community-wide initiative designed to create a more coordinated, effective, and responsive mental health system that promotes emotional health, reduces stigma, and improves access to care and support for everyone in Summit County. This nonprofit organization was born from the tragic suicide of a prominent Summit County woman named Patti Casey. The Casey family and the Summit Foundation came together after her death to rally 65 community members, elected officials, mental health providers, and hospital staff to reduce mental health stigma and, most importantly, make services more accessible to all community members facing challenges.

Jennifer McAtamney, Executive Director of Building Hope.

The Family and Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC). 

The Executive Director of Building Hope is a woman named Jennifer McAtamney. With a background in creating programs and partnerships, fundraising and communications, combined with her family’s lived experience navigating mental health challenges, Jennifer is a passionate advocate for de-stigmatizing mental health and providing access for all who need this vital support. Rocky Mountain Health Plans is a partner and supporter of Building Hope’s work training therapists to take Medicaid and streamlining payment processing, all with the goal of improving mental health access to all community members.

Thirty percent of the population of Summit County has received services from either Building Hope or its partner organization, Family and Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC).

Thirty percent of the population of Summit County has received services from either Building Hope or its partner organization, Family and Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC). Therapy is available without cost for people with Medicaid eligibility. Once connected with an appropriate therapist, setting an appointment is all that is needed. For people like Otto who don’t qualify for Medicaid, a no-wrong-door scholarship program was built to help anyone living and working in Summit County who cannot afford therapy. After being connected with a local therapist qualified to meet diverse needs – whether those are related to school challenges, depression, sexual assault, not speaking English, or other unique needs – extended therapy sessions are made available free of charge.

Otto paddles into the future with a renewed sense of hope. 

This is just what Otto did after his traumatic experience. He was connected with a Spanish-speaking therapist who helped him work through the trauma for more than a year. Otto describes his experience, saying “After the therapy, I felt relieved. I felt good. My life continued as normal. Working a lot, busy enough.” But, soon, busy enough wasn’t enough for Otto. He felt compelled to help others the way he had been helped. Now, he works with Building Hope and FIRC to connect others who have experienced tragedy with the help they need. He’s determined to break the stigma of suicide and mental health, both in the Hispanic community and beyond. 

Otto wants his Summit County community to know that it’s okay to not be okay. As he says, “It’s okay if you go through bad times in your life. If you go to hard times, or bad situations, there is always a light after the tunnel.”


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