This has been a tough summer for Jacksonites. COVID-19’s resurgence exacerbated the stresses of record tourism, while the housing crisis created a foreboding sense of insecurity, especially for vulnerable renters.
“At one point or another everyone was struggling at some level,” Deidre Ashley, executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, told the News&Guide.
In a survey released Tuesday, 45% of Jacksonites reported their mental health suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, with about half of that group seeking care, and the other half electing not to.
At the same time Teton County residents were turning to the counseling center for help due to the pandemic, Ashley said, the infectious virus forced her center to stop offering drop-in services in favor of telehealth and limited outdoor visits. Therapeutic services are still being offered, and this month counselors will offer free 30-minute mental health screenings on Zoom so that people can begin to deal with their depression and anxiety.
Ashley knows additional care is needed, and she’s hopeful the community’s recent mental health needs assessment will point them in the right direction.
Launched in July by a coalition of human service providers, the mental health survey garnered 1,100 responses and helped paint a more complete picture of health in the valley.
A demographic breakdown of respondents showed people who were younger (ages 18 to 39), low-income and white were among the groups whose mental health suffered the most. Compared to 28% of Hispanic respondents, 52% of white respondents said their mental health worsened since the beginning of the pandemic.
People in Teton County also described an elevated number of “poor mental health days.” Compared to a 2018 analysis of county health rankings, residents are experiencing twice as much difficulty on a monthly basis, with the number of poor mental health days in the past 30 days, bumping from three to seven. Here the people most affected identified as women, non-Hispanic people of color, LGBTQ and low income.
The percent of Teton County community members who reported that their mental health had worsened is double the national average, according to the 2021 PRC National Coronavirus Community Impact Survey.
Of particular concern are the people who said they didn’t seek mental health care. Men, elderly and low-income populations were among the least likely to seek assistance. As the survey identified, there may be accessibility barriers for those groups.
If survey respondents are assumed to be a representative sample of Teton County, that would mean about 4,500 residents experienced worse mental health but chose not to access care.
One of the starkest findings from the report was the degree to which Jacksonites feel isolated and abandoned. Compared to 24% of U.S. residents who said they felt lonely, half of the people surveyed in Teton County reported feelings of loneliness. And 60% said they lacked companionship or felt left out.
Young, low-income and LGBTQ people were the most likely to feel lonely.
The survey also revealed Teton County residents drink significantly more than the rest of the country, with 40% reporting binge drinking in the past month, more than twice the national average, which is 17%.
Younger people with higher incomes, especially men, were the most likely to report drinking excessively, and three in four respondents said alcohol is important to social life.
Resort towns like Vail, Breckenridge, and Tahoe report similarly elevated alcohol consumption.
Nearly 50 community members tuned in Tuesday for a presentation of the assessment’s findings, which was led by FSG Consultants. At the end of the presentation, viewers were asked what future outcomes they’d like to see.
Former Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner said she wants to see compassion for the hardship of others, then action. Former St. John’s Health CEO Lou Hochheiser said he wants better coordination. Other participants asked for improvements in accessibility, services for low-income people, less bureaucracy between agencies, and intercultural training for practitioners.
Community leaders will use the assessment to formulate a more complete action plan in coming weeks.
The Community Foundation, which helps fund several human service providers in the valley, also pitched in mightily to make the survey possible. The time, energy and resources required to pull an assessment like this together would not have been there if not for the foundation, Ashley said.
The counseling director is grateful behavioral health is spending some time in the limelight because she said it was previously shunned as the “redheaded stepchild.”
“It’s a complicated issue, and like addiction there’s a stigma and old perceptions,” Ashley said.
Efforts like Mental Health JH, a pilot program of free counseling sessions launched during the pandemic, have worked to break down that stigma and make health care more accessible.
But Ashley also identified a need to address the underlying issues that hurt mental health — namely financial insecurity.
“All the case management services in the world aren’t going to help someone find housing,” she said. “People are just trying to put things together to survive.”