Providers switch to remote mental health help


Ouray area therapists and counselors are hoping to combat isolation by moving services out of offices and into the virtual world.

This past week, mental health service providers in Ouray County and its neighbors began to offer their services by phone or teletherapy through video calls. Mountain towns are already targets for feelings of isolation, and suicide rates in the Rocky Mountain are one of the highest in the country. Ouray County area mental health providers all agreed people need these services, and are prepped for new and continuing clients.

Mental health experts in the area said they anticipate added stress from financial worries due to the coronavirus outbreak and social isolation may lead to people seeking therapy for the first time. But, it’s also important for current clients to continue their care, said Kate Kissingford, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Ridgway. Continuity and making sure that people have the ability to move forward is “essential to normalizing,” she said.

“When someone takes that brave step to start working with their mental health or their relationship health, it can be really devastating to have that just cut off,” Kissingford said. She added, “People feel that even though the structures around them are disrupted, they feel like they can move forward.”

Private therapists and mental health facilities such as the Center for Mental Health and Tri-County Health Network have offered teletherapy services for a few years in Ouray County. In the mountains, snow storms can prevent people from traveling even short distances, and teletherapy was a safe alternative, Kissingford said.

The appointments work much the same as an in-person session, she added. People will need to reach out to the provider of their choice by phone. Paul Reich, the behavioral health program manager at Tri-County Health Network, said that any of the necessary paperwork will be sent to clients via email.

Many of the providers can also provide more flexible hours for sessions, Reich said. This was something staff noticed at Tri-County when they first started offering teletherapy to Telluride schools in 2017.

“We wanted to make sure we were able to meet the students’ schedules so they weren’t missing their favorite class,” he said. “It gives them a little more flexibility. It’s not a 9 to 5 situation then.”

Tri-County pays counselors on a contract basis. They set up sessions with clients and then bill for those hours, Reich said. Grants and fundraising through the Colorado Gives Day program has allowed Tri-County to provide many of their teletherapy services for free, he added.

Kissingford said she is grateful that the mountain mental health community is able to provide services to those who may not be able to afford it. Particularly, she added, because therapy can sometimes be seen as a luxury service. As businesses stay closed, and peoples’ financial struggles continue due to coronavirus, Kissingford said that she and other private therapists have had discussions on cutting prices in order to make sure people are still getting the help they need.

“There’s a lot of talk about that in the community,” she said. “I want to keep faith with my clients as much as possible.”

Laura Byard, regional director at the Center for Mental Health, said the organization has spent the last week preparing for the shift in online services. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, there were limits to using video services in health care. One example was that the first visit to see any health care provider always had to be in person, Byard said. Earlier this month, Gov. Jared Polis lifted many of those limitations, as well as fees associated with telehealth.

“That has allowed us to rapidly expand. We are uniquely positioned to reach out to our community members in their home,” she said. “Right now, what’s most critical for us is to let people know that there are still services and supports available.”

Those supports will become more important in the coming days after people have adjusted to the initial changes in their daily schedule. Byard also stressed that the center’s Crisis Walk-In Center in Montrose is still open for people in need, as as a crisis hotline. The center is planning to launch a new support line as well. It will be run by center staff, Byard said, and is for people who just want to talk to someone. It will be a localized version of the Kind Connection Program, a volunteer-run calling service from Spark the Change Colorado.

Although Byard and Reich also said they have not seen an increased use of video services as of this week, they expect that those numbers will go up after people have adjusted to working at home and the recommendation for people to distance themselves continues. Both also added that their facilities are looking into how to work with patients that don’t have internet access, should that issue arise.

Tri-County’s teletherapy services to schools have “waxed and waned” over time, Reich said, depending on what school districts were offering themselves. The organization first began offering teletherapy services to Telluride schools in 2017. The program has since expanded to Norwood, Ridgway and Ouray. Tri-County is hopeful that more schools will take advantage of the service now that classes are not in session and students may need tele-health..

Ridgway Schools decided to close to students on March 16, before the state declared schools closed until at least April IT Once the coronavirus school closure went into effect, Sharon Brown, the mental health counselor with the Ridgway School District, said the teletherapy services with Tri-County were a no-brainer. Even though people are isolating themselves for health reasons, Brown said it’s important to still act as a community and provide support, especially for school-aged children.

“The social-emotional needs are super important for their mental health as well as their physical health,” she said. “Coping with the changes can be really challenging for some students.”

Last week, Brown emailed students and their families offering to provide teletherapy sessions or even one-on-one necessary. She has set up a website which she has been regularly updating with information and mindfulness activities for families.

Brown said that many of the students have spoken about missing their friends. Teachers and parents have helped them set up Zoom video meetings for kids to give them a place to socialize. Seniors have expressed worries about graduation. While Brown said students have not been too concerned about their own health, they are concerned about their grandparents or stores out of food.

Brown’s services also extend to parents and teachers, she said. Although people have reached out to thank her for that, no one has taken her up on it yet.

Many of the area’s mental health experts, including Brown and Byard, said they are hoping to use this opportunity to see how teletherapy works for all their clients. If things work well, Byard said there is a possibility of continuing to use it as a larger resource in the future. The internet, Brown added, makes it so that people can be social without being there in person.

“I think a lot of good will come from this unfortunate situation,” Brown said.

For Byard, one of the most important things to remember right now is to do things you enjoy. People need to remember to laugh and have fun, even though times are stressful. Those little things can be key to helping people struggling with isolation.

All of those things that are really easy to put aside, are really important,” she said.

The Center for Mental Health

Phone: 970-252-3200

Walk-in Crisis Center

300 N. Cascade Ave. in Montrose


(available 24 hours a day)

Tri-County Health Network teletherapy

Forms are available online 970-708-7096