Dogged by Mental Health Issues

bull mastiff 0419I don’t know if it was our vigorous social schedule, daunting door decisions, or just the endlessly dreary weather, but Lynn and I were both worn out yesterday. Mid-afternoon, I lay down for awhile, bringing this week’s Crested Butte News with me. And even though I was sleepy, I was somewhat taken aback by how much content was focusing on mental health. It was in ads, referenced in several stories, the sole focus of at least one story, and in the editorial.

But this is the week after Ski Season, and over the last couple years April and May have proved hazardous to the physical health of those in the CB area struggling with mental health. Per capita, their suicide rate has to be screamingly high, and the community has spent the past year rallying to help its own. A broader community, too: Montrose just opened its first 24-hour mental health crisis center. While it’s 60 miles away for us, and 90 for Crested Butte, it’s a regional resource that wasn’t there before. And yes, it was advertised in the CB paper.

The article that most directly discussed suicide prevention had an interesting tidbit: the higher one goes in altitude, the more likely one is to act upon suicidal inclinations. I don’t know what the altitude of Salt Lake City is (4,226 feet, if you want to believe the internet), but according to somebody’s research, just being there might make one more inclined to commit self-harm than if that same person were at sea level.

I had thought that maybe the usually (although not this year) abundant Colorado sun might offer healing rays to people struggling mentally, but perhaps the thinning air outweighs the surging sun.

Of course, not all mental health issues lead to suicide, but they can cause problems, and I got to witness this up close at least twice this past week.

Gunnison probably has a larger homeless problem than I think, if the school lunch lady is going to tell the newspaper that she’s aware of nine high school students who do not have places to live, but up until a couple of years ago it was easy to go about your daily life without obviously encountering a homeless person.

But in the last few years, we — and when I say “we,” I often mean “City Market” — have played host to the homelessness that seems to be caused by mental illness. Last year a man who was probably both mentally ill and an alcoholic moved into our downtown park. My business partner went to dinner on the adjacent restaurant’s patio and had the unpleasant experience of watching this man, who was perhaps 15 feet away from a public restroom, divest himself of his pants and urinate all over the picnic table that would the next day be unwittingly utilized by farmers’ market attendees.

Winter drove him out of the park (I keep wondering if he has taken up residence in our jail), but spring is returning, and this week a different man has taken to roaming downtown Gunnison. He’s hard to miss: he’s a bear of a man in a large hat, sort of mountain man-ish, and he’s accompanied by a huge brindle mastiff.

The first time I saw him was when he came into Pat’s Screen Printing, bringing his giant dog without so much as an “Is it okay if he comes in?” Gilly and Ben were helping him with the shirt he said he wanted when he abruptly turned, almost mid-sentence, and left the building. Shortly thereafter, Gilly noticed the dog had peed all over one of our shirt racks.

He hasn’t returned, and while I mandated that he is to be told his dog will have to wait outside, my second encounter makes me wonder how effectively we’ll be able to manage that.

Friday night we participated in Tia’s Movable Feast at a local restaurant. It started with her, her husband, son and sister-in-law, then moved to a table near the door when Lynn and I arrived. Son and sister-in-law departed, eventually to be replaced by mother-in-law and friend. This being Gunnison, other people came and went, stopping by the table to say “hi” to at least one of us seated there.

And then the mountain man arrived, walking in with his gargantuan dog just as he had at Pat’s Screen Printing. Restaurant personnel, who did a spectacularly poor job of waiting on our table, met him near the door and suggested he leave his dog outside. The man replied that this was his service animal.

Tia’s husband Don, who travels a lot for his job, said it’s astounding the number and variety of animals people have been bringing onto airplanes, claiming them as emotional support animals. I think the Colorado legislature is attempting to address this issue and give businesses some tools to sort out actual, certified service animals.

This particular man’s dog is clearly not a trained service animal, although as the evening unraveled, it probably does serve as support for someone who, once again, appears to be both mentally ill and addicted to alcohol.

The hostess/waitress managed to direct him to the most out-of-the-way table she could, one that was also near the door. The man ordered a beer and then started talking. I was focused on our rotating table, so it took awhile before I looked up and realized he wasn’t talking to anyone in particular, just spewing a non-stop stream of words that tended toward the foul.

A family of four, who had said hello to us as they arrived not long before, abruptly got up and left, leaving behind drinks, menus and a handful of dollars. Clearly they had planned to eat but left. At first I wondered if it was because the service level was not what it usually is at this restaurant, but thinking about it, they had a middle schooler with them, and probably did not care to be around giant dogs and ugly words.

The restaurant tried. A woman came out of the kitchen and engaged the man in conversation, toning down his volume. Somehow she managed to get him moving after one beer, and even got full price out of him, although he was staggering badly as he was pulling money out of his wallet, which gave his dog license to come greet first me and then Don.

The woman from the kitchen mouthed “sorry” at me as she was urging him out, then came over and issued an apology to us and the tables behind us. Our nominal waitress comped Tia’s dessert, and then took another $20 off the bill incurred by the third round of food and drinks our waxing party ordered.

Really, the man, if not his dog, was easy enough for us to ignore,  but his one beer appears to have cost the restaurant a four-top, along with the discounts they didn’t need to offer us. (When they comped Tia’s dessert I felt bad about the small tip I had left on our earlier bill, but the service had been nearly non-existent.)

The writer Samuel Johnson coined the concept of the “black dog” of depression. This man, who may not be clinically depressed but clearly has issues, has a brindle, not black, outsize dog that could just as easily be a metaphor for the breadth of this problem — and no easy answer in sight.

One thought on “Dogged by Mental Health Issues

  1. I think the daunting door decisions could do us all in. In fact many of your house details thus far have sent me straight to nap time. But still I love reading each and every entry. Let me clarify, It’s not what you write but my identifying with the whole decision-making process.

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