Leadership Interview: Chris Lindley, MPH, MBA, Director, Eagle County Public Health and Environment

Chris Lindley has led Eagle County Public Health and Environment since May 2017. Previously, he served in several roles with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but his career path also includes military service as an Army environmental science officer and as founder of two health and fitness brands in Colorado. He earned a master's degree in public health from Emory University and a master’s degree in business administration from Washington University.
 
Ascent: Access to mental health services is an issue affecting many in the region. What is Eagle County Public Health's approach to meet this need?
 
Lindley: We want to see same-day behavioral health services, seven days a week for anyone in need in Eagle County.
 
We are collaborating with many groups. One recent success is the arrival of the Hope Center to the Eagle River Valley. The Hope Center is a non-profit organization that provides free service to anyone in crisis, regardless of economic status. Any time there is a call involving a potential mental health patient, a licensed crisis clinician co-responds with law enforcement and/or paramedics to stabilize the patient in their home and connect them to the most appropriate care in the days and weeks following the call for help. The volume of calls they are getting really highlights the challenge; there is a lot of need for help and there is not a lot of access to services. Eagle County as a government entity, as well as all local law enforcement and county paramedics, are contributing to funding this organization. In addition, Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, and his wife Elana Amsterdam recently committed to contributing financial support to this model.
 
We’re also working to bring more school-based mental health counselors—licensed, trained clinicians—into the schools. We finished the last school year with none, but this year we’ve raised funding for six licensed clinicians. Five are already in place on the Eagle River side of the county, and one on the Roaring Fork side. The Hope Center also has four crisis clinicians in the community that were not in place last year. In total, that’s a big bump in capacity we’ve built in a short amount of time.
 
This highlights two local, grass-roots initiatives we are working on without any state support as of yet. But we would sure like to change that in 2019.
 
In partnership with Rocky Mountain Health Plans, our RAE leadership, we are working to ensure that our Medicaid providers are delivering proper care in a timely fashion. One of the biggest complaints we hear—nearly daily—is from residents who can’t get in to be seen by a mental health provider. They say they are not getting return calls about appointments, or appointments are set four to six months down the road. This is unacceptable.
 
Ascent: From your point of view, what role does engaging community leadership play in the success of the RAE?
 
Lindley: It’s absolutely essential. The RAE will not be supported or effective if it’s not working with the key leaders in the community. Our heads of law enforcement, pre-hospital care, school superintendents, mental health providers and health care executives meet monthly to hash out what’s working, what’s not, and how we are collectively going to make the needed improvements. The challenges we face in mental health are collective problems, and we are committed to working collaboratively to address these problems as a community. We have hard, frank conversations about where the gaps are in the system, and who can be doing things better. This is the type of group the RAE must engage with and listen to and we are asking RMHP for commitment in sitting down at the table with us to develop solutions for how we can improve mental health care in our region.
 
There is not enough money or personnel here, or anywhere in the state of Colorado, to meet the current needs. We have to get creative and innovative together to meet the needs as best as we can. Eagle County is starting to walk now, and hopefully in 2019, we will start running. We have all of the right people working together to create a community system of services and prevention to save lives, create hope and change the behavioral health outcomes in our county.
 
Ascent: Can you share some of the population health priorities you have for the Vail-Eagle/I-70 corridor communities?
 
Lindley: We have many priorities, but to name a few: We want to build a crisis stabilization unit and social detox joint facility in the Eagle River Valley; we are working to increase the number of school-based mental health counselors from six to 17; and we want to ensure long-term funding for the Hope Center.
 
We hope the crisis stabilization unit will be co-located with a social detox center and respite care unit. We want to share resources and personnel to create a one-stop shop for people in need of behavioral health support. One of the challenges we face is the need for state licensing agencies to become flexible with state waivers, so we can best capitalize on space and staffing.
 
We also want to do more prevention and education. We have great nonprofits doing fantastic work, but the need for mental health education and prevention outpaces their current capacity. More funding is needed to increase this capacity, and we need to find better ways to disseminate mental health information and education across the community.
 
Our goal is for discussions about mental health illness to be just like the discussions we have with neighbors and friends about cancer. When someone has cancer, they share this news with friends and families to get support, both financially and emotionally, walking side by side with those we care about. Unfortunately, this is not always the case for mental health illness, and this is something we aim to fix in our community.