Mental Health Needs Surge

Depression, substance abuse on the rise

If there’s any indicator as to the emotional toll the pandemic has taken, it’s the increased demand for mental health care.

The uncertainty, sadness and struggle to survive COVID-19 have led to an increase in mental health concerns including depression, substance abuse and suicidal ideation both nationwide and in the Gunnison Valley.

Gunnison County leaders last week during a virtual town hall took a closer look at how the community has fared since the start of the pandemic nine months ago.

They found that people of all ages are dealing with the difficulties of navigating the pandemic. For adults, unemployment, food insecurity and child care have been reported as top stressors. Teenagers are taking on uncertainty with class schedules and canceled events such as prom. And the elderly, who face the highest risk of severe COVID-19, are facing isolation and vulnerability like never before.

A Gunnison County business and community survey sent out this November found more than 58% of business owners report their mental health has declined since this time last year.

Nearly a quarter of the 560 respondents said they feel anxious and stressed “most of the time,” and another 26% reported an increase in alcohol consumption.

“Unfortunately we are seeing the same people here over and over again,” said Gunnison Valley Health Foundation Director Jenny Birnie of recent admissions to the hospital.

Birnie said GVH has seen a staggering 500% increase in admissions to its emergency rooms for behavioral issues among adults in 2020. Th e primary diagnoses include anxiety, suicide attempts or ideation, alcohol and opioid non-fatal overdose, depression and hallucinations.

Since January 2020, there has been an 18% increase in visits for suicidal ideation as well as a 10% increase in alcohol non-fatal overdoses for adults in Gunnison County.

Alcohol abuse has long been a problem for both adults and youth in the Gunnison Valley, said Director of Gunnison County Juvenile Services Kari Commerford.

A Healthy Kids Colorado survey from fall 2019 found that 27% of high school students in Gunnison County reported binge drinking (five or more drinks) in the past 30 days.

“This is significantly higher than regional, state and national figures,” Commerford said.

High school students who reported binge drinking expressed increased feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.

Th ose figures have only continued to climb amid the pandemic, Commerford said.

Regional Director for The Center for Mental Health Kimberly Behounek said increased stress during an event such as a pandemic can result in diffi culty sleeping, concentrating and increased substance abuse.

Knowing where to get assistance for services ranging from testing to therapy and other resources is a good start to addressing mental health issues.

It’s important to know personal priorities and what works for the individual, said Behounek. Whether it’s going for a short walk or reading a book, it’s beneficial to know how to cope with continued stress.

“Your priorities may not be the norm, and that’s OK,” Behounek said.

Birnie acknowledged the hardships Gunnison County residents have faced in recent months but said she was grateful for the county’s current status.

“We’re actually in good shape compared to other communities,” Birnie said.

Gunnison Country Times
Kate Gienapp can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or
Gunnison Country Times | December 17, 2020
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What has been causing stress? (chart)

A recent survey in Gunnison County found financial insecurity to be the biggest stressor as the community continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo)


Taking care of your emotional health will help you think clearly and react to the urgent needs to protect yourself and your family.

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
  • Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch, or try a meditation exercise.
  • Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol and drug use.
  • Make time to unwind.
  • Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
  • Connect with your community- or faith-based organizations. While social distancing measures are in place, consider connecting online, through social media, or by phone or mail.


GVH partnered with The Center for Mental Health (CMH) to gather certified peer support specialists that have overcome a mental health condition and mentor individuals who struggle with mental health, psychological trauma or substance abuse.


GVH Peer Specialist

CMH Peer Specialist
Gunnison/Crested Butte