Making connections in support of mental health 

Mountain towns meet in Colorado for Katz Amsterdam Foundation Convening

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - COLORADO CONNECTIONS Mountain communities face many of the same challenges when it comes to addressing mental health.
  • Photo submitted
  • COLORADO CONNECTIONS Mountain communities face many of the same challenges when it comes to addressing mental health.

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, more than 60 nonprofit, local government and health care leaders from 10 mountain communities gathered in Boulder, Colo., from May 29 to 31 for the first-ever Katz Amsterdam Foundation Convening.

The event was designed to bring professionals working in mental and behavioural health together to establish a foundation for shared learning, said Beth Ganz, executive director of the Katz Amsterdam Foundation (launched last year by Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz and his wife Elana Amsterdam, with a commitment of almost $100 million).

"One of the main goals of the Katz Amsterdam Foundation is to connect mountain communities, people working in mental and behavioural health in the mountain communities to each other, and so this convening was really the start of that," Ganz said. "We wanted to bring everybody together with the goal to create the foundation of the relationships and connections that we hope can really foster shared learning, teaching, and sharing across the communities."

The format for the conference featured "a little bit of everything," Ganz said, from sharing personal stories to presentations of different programs from the mountain communities.

"We did a lot of small group work where we looked at the challenges that communities face, and while every community is incredibly unique, it was really eye-opening to see how the challenges we all face are very similar," she said.

Some of those shared challenges include a lack of professionals (largely driven by housing availability), the continued stigma around mental health issues and a lack of a sense of belonging, said Gizem Kaya, program and community development manager with the Whistler Community Services Society.

On that last point, Kaya said many people at the convening were excited about the local Connect Whistler Week, which helps newcomers to the resort find the services they may need.

"We discussed stigma and then connectedness during the convening, and Connect Whistler Week does a really good job of bringing newcomers and acquainting them with services, and where the healthcare centre is, or where the social services are, where is the women's centre where is the food bank, in a very fun way," she said.

"Some different organizations were interested in bringing that into their community, so I got to share a little bit about that."

As for what caught her attention, Kaya said she was impressed with a warming centre launched by Lake Tahoe to support its homeless population in the winter months.

"It's amazing work that seems very difficult to do, but just giving people a warm place to sleep on the coldest nights ... that seems like very impressive work to me," she said.

Addressing the more systemic issues around mental health starts with education at a young age, Kaya added.

"If we continue social emotional learning in schools we are going to see that ripple effect later, and for people who are past that education piece now, we try to create a sense of connectedness, and we build community," she said. "We remove the stigma from (accessing mental health services), and we make ourselves available. We take care of each other; we take care of our neighbours."

Kaya also wanted to acknowledge the support of the Katz Amsterdam Foundation in Whistler to this point, highlighting its assistance in expanding WCSS' outreach services and counselling assistance, as well as the school lunch and healthy choices programs.

"Thanks to these services we are able to fill in gaps that exist within our system, (which) allows us to provide super low-barrier services in treatment as well as prevention areas," she said, adding that the foundation gave WCSS $100,000 in 2018, $100,000 in 2017 and $333,000 in 2016 through the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation.

The biggest takeaway from the convening, from Ganz's perspective, was just how connected the communities really are.

"We share related professions of course, but more importantly, we share a desire to really make a difference and to help others, and to ignite our passion to face tough issues and strive towards goals together that will really, truly help create healthy communities," she said.

As for what's next, the goal is to "keep it up," Ganz said. "We want to really create an effective learning community of these folks and others in our communities who are working on these issues every day," she said.

"So we will keep connecting, keep sharing, keep learning from each other."

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