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Mental health counselor coming to BMS
Full-time position to be funded by Eagle County marijuana tax
Mental health

Basalt Middle School will be getting a full-time mental health clinician for the 2019-2020 school year courtesy of Eagle County, which signed the contract ratifying the agreement Tuesday at the county commissioners meeting. Under the deal, BMS will receive $80,000 collected from the county’s marijuana tax to pay for the clinician.

The move comes on the heels of a contract signed last November that pays for a full-time clinician at Basalt High School and is similar to agreements the county has made over the last year-plus to place mental health counselors in many of the high schools and middle schools in the Eagle River Valley.

“This is part of a larger effort for Eagle County to use the county’s mental health funds that come from the marijuana tax dollars to support mental health clinicians in our schools,” said Dana Erpelding, deputy director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment. 

The county began by placing clinicians in area high schools but soon realized that the need for mental health counseling often begins well before kids reach their teens.

“What we found over the last year is that the need was really the greatest in the middle schools,” said Erpelding. “The primary age of students that were reaching out for help was in grades six through eight, with an average age of 12 years old. Looking at the data over the last year in the Eagle River Valley made us feel strongly that we wanted to support having someone in the middle school in Basalt, as well.”

With the clinician coming aboard, BMS will become the first middle school in the Roaring Fork School District, which encompasses Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, to have a full-time mental health counselor. All three of the district’s high schools already have clinicians, with the ones in Garfield County (Glenwood Springs High School and Carbondale’s Roaring Fork High School) receiving funding from marijuana taxes in their respective towns.

The district hopes to one day have full-time clinicians in all of its middle schools, too, but it doesn’t have the money to pay for them at this time, according to school district Superintendent Rob Stein.

“It would be ideal” to get clinicians in the middle schools, said Stein. “But we don’t really have a solid plan for it because the funding for it isn’t there.”

The BMS clinician will be provided by the Aspen- and Eagle-based Hope Center, which also provides the clinician at BHS. However, with the ink on the BMS contract still wet, the Hope Center has yet to hire someone for the position and, with less than three weeks to go until school starts, is actively searching for good candidates.

“Now that this is official, we are hiring fast and furiously so someone can start when the school year starts,” said Hope Center Executive Director Michelle Muething.

Muething encouraged anyone interested in applying for the position to go the Hope Center’s website (ourhopecenter.org) and submit their resume through the “Contact Us” page.

Once in place, the clinician will be responsible for all manner of preventive and intervention-related mental health outreach and education, including substance abuse counseling, suicide prevention and sex education, and they’ll be seeing students in group and individual settings. Students at BMS can volunteer to join groups or speak with the clinician on their own, or they may be referred by the school staff and even other students concerned about their friends’ well-being.

“There are some that are referral-based, and there are some that are across the spectrum,” said Muething. “A principal or a teacher or a pod of teachers may want the kids to all have the same thing (in a group setting). We try to have our core of what we do be stable and static across the grades and schools, but then the clinicians do have leeway within every school to meld to what that school needs.”

It’s an approach that has worked well in the short time it has been available at BHS and the other district high schools. As an example, Stein cited the results seen at GWHS, which gets its mental health counselor from Western Slope-based Mind Springs Health.

“Before we had the full-time mental health provider at Glenwood High, we had, I think, nine or 11 M1 holds (where a person is taken into custody and referred for treatment) in the fall semester and one in the spring semester,” said Stein, “because we were able to treat kids in an ongoing way rather than call 911 and have to take them to the ER for treatment.”

The contract, as it is worded, calls for Eagle County to gradually draw down its funding over four years, with the aim of having the school district pay for the clinician on its own after that. This could cause a problem down the road, as Basalt’s marijuana tax revenue is not specifically earmarked for mental health issues, but Muething seemed confident that she would be able to continue staffing the position one way or another.

“I have vowed to our Roaring Fork schools that if I lose funding I’m going to find that funding somewhere,” she said, “because I know the value of what we’ve seen over the years.”