Living in a mountain town isn’t always idyllic. As Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, Deidre Ashley sees people all the time who are struggling and seeking help for their mental health challenges. Sometimes her clients are seasonal workers who find life in a resort community more isolating and difficult than they had hoped, while other times she sees long-term residents struggling with various mental health conditions, sometimes exacerbated by the financial strain of making ends meet. “Chronic stress takes a toll on your mental health,” Ashley says.
When Ashley began working at the center in 2009, it provided services for around 650 clients each year. Now that number tops 1,000.
She says mental illness is very common, and up to a quarter of the population deals with some variety of mental health condition, from anxiety to grief, bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. Ashley points out Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. Winters are long, many people feel isolated, and rural living often means being far from services—the closest in-patient treatment center is 90 miles away in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
According to Ashley, less than half of the people who need treatment for mental health conditions receive that help, largely due to stigma and the affordability of care. The counseling center works to overcome those barriers to treatment through outreach efforts, school programming, suicide prevention, and even a free eight-hour mental health first aid class that teaches citizens how to respond to mental health crises. It also provides care regardless of whether or not people can pay, with a sliding fee scale where some receive treatment for just $5.
“I try to get people to see they’re health issues and to let people know it’s okay,” she says. “It’s not a sign of weakness to seek help. It’s a sign of strength when you’re struggling.”
Before Ashley began her position at the center, she spent 11 years working as program director at Community Entry Services where she worked with people with disabilities. She remembers the job fondly and has a framed photo of her former clients hanging above her desk. She decided to transition to the mental health field when she was completing her master’s degree in social work and had an internship at the counseling center—the work drew her in.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for vulnerable populations,” she says. “It’s easy to look at kids and they grab your heart, but when you look at people struggling with mental illness, you don’t get that as much unless you know them.”
Even when she has a day when she feels like the administrative demands of her work are challenging, she knows her efforts are making a difference in people’s lives. “At the end of the day, even if it’s a bad day and I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, it still feels meaningful to try and make a difference,” she says.