The results from a Summit County mental health survey offer the clearest picture to date of the local situation, an official says. He was particularly drawn to alcohol-use data as well as residents’ knowledge of mental health resources.
Courtesy of CONNECT Summit County

In the wake of the overdose deaths of two 13-year-old boys that rocked the Park City community five years ago, Summit County elected officials made behavioral health a top priority. They overhauled the way the county’s behavioral health services are delivered, which increased the number of accessible local clinicians and provided for therapists in schools. They also partnered with other agencies to provide an alternative to law enforcement responses for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The strategic plan that informed the last half-decade of work is being updated, and officials recently reported the results of a community survey they will use to shape upcoming goals.

Aaron Newman, the county’s behavioral health director, said the survey provides the best local data officials have yet seen. He credited funding from the Katz Amsterdam Foundation, a nonprofit started by Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz and his wife Elana Amsterdam, for helping to launch local initiatives and improving the data collection effort.

The survey was conducted online and through phone calls and collected more than 2,200 responses. It features more answers from East Side residents than previous efforts, Newman said, and includes a sample that reflects the county’s population. The data can also be compared to a similar survey offered in 2015 to gauge change over time.

Newman said he found the alcohol-related results particularly surprising. Results in the western side of the county, including Park City and the Snyderville Basin, show consistently higher substance use numbers than on the East Side.

The survey indicates 59% of respondents are classified as either heavy drinkers or binge drinkers. Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks on a single occasion for men, or four or more drinks for women, during the past 30 days. Heavy drinking is defined as having an average of two or more daily drinks for men or an average of more than one drink per day for women.

“The Summit County prevalence of excessive drinking is considerably worse than state and national figures, but below what was found for peer communities,” the survey states.

Newman indicated that could prompt a shift to more alcohol-related prevention programming, as health providers in the county have in the past focused on drug-abuse prevention.

The survey lists North Tahoe in California, and Eagle and Summit counties in Colorado as peer communities.

Newman said those places, the homes of Northstar California Ski Resort, Vail Ski Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort, respectively, also have economies largely based on the ski industry, many seasonal employees and a significant population of affluent people who reside elsewhere part of the year.

“Because we have all these resort communities, it gives us a better metric to compare ourselves to,” Newman said. “Compared to the rest of Utah, Summit County is always an outlier. To the rest of the U.S., the Intermountain West is always an outlier for mental health.”

The Katz Amsterdam Foundation helped fund the survey in many ski towns where Vail Resorts operates, and it has contributed millions of dollars in grants to those communities, many targeted at behavioral health work. The foundation on its website describes the motivation for working to bolster behavioral health efforts.

“An organic (byproduct) of a tourism-based economy is a culture with a heavy emphasis on partying and substance abuse. Long-term residents are affected by this culture which promotes social acceptability around alcohol and substance misuse. These factors contribute to increased risk factors for behavioral health challenges,” the foundation’s website says.

Though the alcohol data caught Newman’s attention, the data suggests people drink less here than in the other resort communities, though still considerably more than national averages.

Summit County is on par with its peers in having about 1/3 of residents report they needed mental health services in the past year. About 1/3 of those people said they were unable to get those services, which is slightly better than in other mountain towns. Summit County residents cited cost and a perceived lack of availability as being among the significant barriers.

Where the county does fall behind its peers, though, is in perceptions that community members are sympathetic to those with mental illnesses, the ease residents have in discussing mental health and their ability to recognize those who are struggling, according to the survey.

There are also fewer county residents who know about local mental health resources — 56% compared to 71% in peer communities.

The county has contracted with the Huntsman Mental Health Initiative, a subsidiary of the University of Utah, to provide behavioral health services to people who don’t have health insurance or who are insured through Medicaid.

The number of care providers treating that subset of the community has increased dramatically through that partnership. Newman said the waiting period to get a non-crisis mental health appointment is two weeks, down significantly from years past but still higher than he’d like. Other improvements include more therapists serving schools, local mental health medication management resources and an increased —though still lacking — number of clinicians who speak Spanish.

Only 19% of Summit County residents reported knowing about the program, a number Newman indicated he’d like to improve.

Newman said Health Department officials will use this data as well as focus groups and community meetings they plan to convene this fall to craft a new strategic plan for behavioral health, which will be presented to the Summit County Council early next year.

“To make this successful, we really need community engagement,” he said.