By Kira Córdova

Western’s Counseling Center, located on the first floor of Crystal Hall

Gunnison Valley Health’s (GVH) Behavioral Health Services, the force behind Western’s Counseling Center for more than a year, integrates free in-person counseling for students on- and off-campus with TimelyCare telehealth and psychiatry services, mobile crisis services, and peer support to provide Western students access to comprehensive mental health care. 

Gary Pierson, Western’s Dean of Students, is not shy in recognizing that the Western and Gunnison communities — like much of the Western Slope of Colorado — have struggled with significant mental health challenges. 

That said, he’s optimistic about the course Western is charting for the future.

“I’ve been really impressed with the work that GVH has done in general for our entire valley. They recognize the importance of mental health and how it was [negatively] impacting the Gunnison Valley,” Pierson says.

GVH took over Western’s counseling center from the Center for Mental Health on July 1, 2022. The transition changed little for students initially; GVH hired both of the therapists that had previously worked at the counseling center and maintained the existing walk-in appointment hours. 

The center, located on the first floor of Crystal Hall, is currently open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Walk-in appointments are available on a first-come, first-served basis every weekday during the academic year: 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Kimberly Behounek, director of GVH’ Behavioral Health Services, says that the Counseling Center stays open even when there aren’t any classes. The on-campus location is open two days a week during the summer, and during a portion of the university’s winter break. 

To make an appointment with the Counseling Center, students can call 970-648-7128.

Twin support systems: Gunnison Valley Health and TimelyCare

Behounek emphasizes that GVH attempts to maintain a mix of genders among its providers at the center, but if students don’t resonate with the therapists on-campus for any reason, they also have access to free counseling both in-person and off-campus at other GVH locations in the Gunnison Valley, and online through Western’s contract with telehealth provider TimelyCare.  

Critically, visits to the on-campus counseling center are free for students, even if they don’t have health insurance. While GVH does ask students for their insurance cards — and the counseling center does attempt to bill insurance to help cover the costs of operating at no cost to students —there is never a copay for students accessing counseling services at the center. 

Additionally, GVH has a peer support specialist and a clinician up at the Crested Butte location, Jessica Gennari, who speaks Spanish, and providers at the on-campus counseling center can access online, real-time interpretation services during sessions. 

And just because a student has insurance doesn’t mean they have to use it. If a student doesn’t feel comfortable providing the center their insurance information they will never be turned away— or charged. That detail is particularly relevant for students on their families’ insurance plan who may not want their parents to know they’re seeking mental health care. 

The policy of not charging Western students applies at GVH’s off-campus locations as well, but Behounek cautions that students seeking free care off-campus need to be proactive about reminding the staff at the off-campus GVH locations that they’re students at Western since those sites are less familiar with treating students. 

She also wants students to be aware that, to justify providing free care, all students seen on-campus or without charge off-campus will receive a diagnosis recognized as valid within the behavioral health field to showcase the medical necessity of the visit. 

That diagnosis could be anything from major depression to mild adjustment disorder brought about by the transition to college, depending on the visit and the needs of that particular student.

Additionally, for those students who may feel more comfortable tackling therapy from home, Western students have access to nine free telehealth counseling sessions with TimelyCare providers per year, resetting in August.

McKenzie Mathewson, Western’s associate director of community wellness, says that both options provide value for Western students. 

“There is no one-size-fits-all method of counseling. If you want to see someone in person, incredible, let’s get you in person on campus. If you would rather do counseling from the comfort of your bedroom, cool … Let’s get you on TimelyCare. [If] you don’t want to be on campus, let’s go connect you with GVH [off-campus],” says Matthewson, who works closely with the Peer Health Educators on issues of mental health from her Residence Life office. 

Students can also take advantage of a new TimelyCare feature called TalkNow, an on-demand support service that connects students with a counselor within 20 minutes, no appointment necessary, available at all hours. Under the university’s TimelyCare subscription, there is no limit on TalkNow visits for students. 

Making strides for mental health

There’s little doubt that in recent years, Western has taken strides to make it easier for students in need to access mental health care, introducing TimelyCare and making the switch to Gunnison Valley Health, which offers more resources locally. But Dean Pierson acknowledges that in the past, and even recently, students have faced barriers when trying to access mental health care. 

“It’s been a challenge hiring therapists post-COVID [at the counseling center],” he notes.” [Plus] we’ve had some turnover within the [GVH] team.”

TimelyCare can provide a counter to some of those staffing and scheduling challenges. With the telehealth service, students can select a provider from a list of therapists available remotely across the country, each with different specialties. Pierson emphasizes that students can usually get a TimelyCare appointment scheduled within two to three days. 

But Behounek echoes Pierson’s sentiment that maintaining enough therapists to meet student’s needs has been difficult. The on-campus counseling center recently had a full-time provider, Erin Wesley, resign.

Filling in for Wesley is a new part-time provider, Mariah Davidson, along with Heidi Immerson, a former counseling intern who finished her practicum at the GVH location on E Denver last Spring. With Davidson and Immerson splitting time, the on-campus center has been able to maintain the equivalent of two full time providers. 

After Erin’s departure, Jared Sahagun, one of the providers GVH hired during the transition (and a former therapist for the Center for Mental Health on campus, which has since merged to become Axis Health System), is the only full-time counselor at the on-campus counseling center. A Licensed Professional Counselor, Sahagun specializes in trauma, relationships, and mood disorders.

While Western students have access to a wide spectrum of free counseling services, Behounek wants students to know that TimelyCare is their best option for accessing psychiatric medication services, especially because it’s free. 

The psychiatric nurse practitioner capable of prescribing medication left GVH in August, and other psychiatrists in the valley, per Behounek, cost around $450 an hour. New patients can expect to be charged that rate for at least an hour-long preliminary visit, in addition to regular 30-minute follow-ups, making TimelyCare’s free service vital for cash-strapped students. 

Psychiatric medication visits through TimelyCare do require a referral, but TimelyCare counselors can refer students, as can providers at Western’s counseling center. Behounek says that she greenlights all GVH referrals to TimelyCare psychiatry. 

“I will never say no,” she confirms.

GVH can also connect students and Gunnison community members to care resources through services like their Mobile Crisis Team and peer support. 

Mathewson emphasizes that GVH’s Mobile Crisis Team, composed of mental health providers and peer support specialists with personal experience overcoming mental health and addiction challenges, will respond to campus calls.

“Pretty much anyone [on-campus] you feel comfortable going to could probably find somebody who can contact them,” she says, adding, “they’re going to show up and meet you, wherever you are at, whether that is in your dorm room, outside of your classroom, in my office, Gary [Pierson’s] office, whatever it may be.” 

The Mobile Crisis Team is a 24/7 service, which, in addition to helping people through crisis, refers and connects clients to mental health and support services — on- and off-campus — to ensure continued care. 

For Spanish speakers, the Mobile Crisis Team has translation earbuds and can call interpreters fluent in a variety of languages if the Spanish-speaking peer support specialist is unable to respond. 

As of July 1, 2023, every time the Mobile Crisis Team is dispatched, a GVH peer support specialist will respond with them. Peer support specialists are folks who have experienced or who have close friends or family members who have experienced substance abuse, suicidal ideation, or other mental health challenges, meaning they have direct experience with coping skills and can intimately relate to what people in crisis are experiencing. 

Western’s Care Team: A vital campus resource

Western also has a Campus Assessment, Response, and Evaluation (CARE) Team composed of individuals involved and invested in the mental well-being of the Western community that follows up on CARE reports submitted by students, faculty, and even community members worried about a friend, colleague, or student.

The team includes Kimberly Behounek, McKenzie Mathewson, and Gary Pierson, as well as a provider from the on-campus counseling center. Involving both Western administrators and GVH professionals in the team ensures the team remains up to date on policy and resources at both organizations — and can facilitate connecting the Western community with the relevant resources and services. 

You can submit a CARE report (anonymously or otherwise) through Western’s housing portal. Anyone can file a report, and you don’t even have to log in (to ensure anyone, not just Western students and faculty) can connect someone with the CARE team. 

Mathewson wants students to know that she and the other CARE team members are there to help them first and foremost, no matter what the issue may be. The group has a wide spectrum of options available to help students and can be as actively involved in someone’s continuing care as that person wants. 

That assistance can extend as far as helping students schedule an appointment and accompanying them to their counseling sessions. 

“If students are ever unsure about anything, there are so many folks here [at Western] that would happily go with them [to mental health resources]. I have gone, and I’ve walked students to the counseling center. I’ve sat in sessions with them because they were unsure if that’s something they wanted to do,” says Matthewson.

“I’ve helped them set up their TimelyCare, and I have no doubt that there are other folks on this campus that are happy to do the same thing. It’s important, so we train our staff on it. We train our professionals on it. We want to see people take care of themselves.” 

Behounek confirms that anyone who a student wants to be with them in a counseling session at any GVH location is welcome to accompany them. 

Continuing to support Mountaineer students 

So, what’s next in terms of mental health services for Western students?

Pierson is thrilled with Mathewson’s initiative as the Associate Director of Student Wellness and anticipates the release of expanded harm-reduction initiatives on campus. 

“I’m really encouraged by Mckenzie Mathewson. Her initiative and her passion for health and wellness and having a good, strong leader in that role is hugely important,” says Pierson.

He also emphasizes Western’s recent focus on combating food insecurity, adding “food insecurity was more of an issue than I realized here, and so that’s something that we’re going to continue to invest in. We’ve been recognized by the Colorado Department of Higher Education as a Healthy Minds Campus, as well as a Hunger Free Campus, and … we’ve got a baseline of programs and activities and resources.”

In that vein, students can access free food once a week at the Mountaineer Marketplace in Pinnacles (open Mondays and Thursday 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.), a service linked to the Gunnison Country Food Pantry, where students are also eligible to shop for free food. 

On the mental health front, Pierson confirms that Western plans to renew its contract with TimelyCare. 

“We’re going to renew our contract with them for an extended period of time. We’re going to make a commitment to that because I think it’s been successful for us,” he notes.

The dean also wants students to let him, and the Health and Wellness Team know what additional resources they need on-campus.  

“We’ll continue to assess and evaluate our current programs, and, as things come to our attention, you know we’re always going to be open and receptive to making improvements. I’m under no illusion that we have everything we need right now, but I do feel comfortable with the depth and breadth of services that we have,” relays Pierson, who notes that students are encouraged to let Western know about shortfalls and areas for improvement.

“I always want to make sure that there’s an opportunity for students to have a voice. That’s what makes this place shine — the kind of people that work here and the students that go here, concludes Pierson. “You know how we can rally around each other when we need to.”

Getting involved with GVH

Have you overcome challenges with mental health or substance abuse? Have you helped a family member or close friend? GVH is currently hiring peer support specialists. 

Candidates must have been in recovery for at least two years and have a valid driver’s license with no restrictions, but no further certifications are required to apply (GVH Behavioral Health will train all new hires). 

The position comes with full benefits and pays $22.25 an hour plus overtime and time and a half for holidays. The current available shifts are night shifts, and Behounek says GVH can work with peer support specialists around their class schedules if they are Western students. 

She recommends keeping an eye on the website for more information and open positions. 

Resources for students and others in need

In crisis? Call 911 or the Colorado Crisis Services Hotline at 1-844-493 TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. The hotline has trained professionals available for free, immediate, and confidential help 24/7, 265 days a year. 

The GVH emergency room is located at 711 N. Taylor St. and can page the Mental Health Emergency Professional on call. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273 TALK (8255) (para Español: 888-628-9484). 

TimelyCare TalkNow on-demand support service is available through the TimelyCare app. Students can log in and access the free service with their Western login.

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