In a valley prone to mental health crisis and high suicide rates, newly appointed Aspen Public Radio (APR) news director Ariel Van Cleave has arrived with a fresh take on mental health support.
Growing up in rural Illinois, Van Cleave was aware of the increased risks for mental health crises rural communities often experience. However, when she moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in October 2020, she was shocked at how prevalent the mental health crisis is here.
“Being here is different. It’s a little more isolating because of the location, and you really have to mean it to come here,” Van Cleave said.
When she started talking with her colleagues at the station about the impact of the pandemic and how people were starting to build up their “life-kits” to survive the dark days of winter, she started to wonder if the station could provide a service to those in need.
Within a matter of weeks, High Risk at High Altitude (HRHA) was created.
HRHA is APR’s newest bi-monthly special programming that launched on Dec. 1. The premise of the program is to discuss different mental health stories and topics with experts in the Valley.
Already, the program has featured Michelle Muething, executive director of the Aspen Hope Center, and Sonjia Linman, a behavioral intervention specialist for the Roaring Fork School District, who discussed the lack of control people are feeling right now and the pandemic’s impact on young people in the Valley respectively.
Future topics, according to Van Cleave, include substance use disorders, how to manage when you are a single person and feeling lonely, service workers and the pressures they are experiencing right now, and highlighting how the outdoors can be therapeutic.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to show that these problems are diverse throughout the Valley and that we can all connect to them,” Van Cleave said. “We also want to show that we are all people and it doesn’t need to feel so disconnected and disjointed.”
With pandemic depression still looming, Van Cleave noted that this holiday season is going to be more difficult than in years’ past which is why the program is also encouraging listener engagement. By sharing prompts regarding future episodes on social media, Van Cleave hopes that listeners can start to dictate the direction of the conversation so it benefits the greater community.
“Anybody is welcome to submit any questions, or comments, or concerns they have,” Van Cleave said. “We’ve had pretty good engagement, but I could always take more because it helps shape the conversations. I don’t want to be the person making all the decisions. I would much rather hear from people because then I would know what they want to talk about.” Of course, content submitted can be kept anonymous, Van Cleave noted.
A wealth of support
Despite the amount of resources currently offered in the valley, there is still a stigma associated with receiving mental health services.
“For years I didn’t want to go to therapy,” Van Cleave said. “I decided that it was not for me, and it took a very long time before realizing that it doesn’t have to be so scary. It could just be someone telling me something that maybe I already know I just need to hear somebody else say it.”
Van Cleave hopes that through HRHA, individuals who are curious about mental wellness, but have yet to take action, can find some comfort in the sense that they are not alone, and have the confidence to reach out when they need support.
For Van Cleave, her biggest goal is to ensure that everyone feels connected and it is okay to not feel so good all the time. Struggling is normal and reaching out for help is an option, she said.
While all these additional resources are wonderful, she said that it can be overwhelming, and she hopes that HRHA can offer a low-key form of support that inspires individuals rather than turn them away.
“I bet people are overwhelmed,” she said. “People could be wondering what’s the right resource, or who’s the right person? I think that’s the other part of this that can be tough to navigate, and I think offering up a different array of people and talking about different things people can hear the voice of the therapist and hear how they offer advice and if it clicks then maybe someone will start with them first.”
Therapy is a process, according to Van Cleave, and she hopes that HRHA will be the first step in a long and healthy mental health experience. Looking toward the future, APR intends to make it a long-term program. Considering the prevalence of mental health challenges in the Valley and the stark reality that these challenges do not simply disappear, Van Cleave is excited for the chance to make even a small impact on the community.
You can catch the next episode of High Risk at High Altitude on Dec. 29 and every other Tuesday on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Recordings and transcripts are also posted on aspenpublicradio.org the same day the episode airs.